Is it possible to plant and grow potatoes on Mars: NASA gave the final answer

Dmitry IvancheskulLife
Yes, potatoes can be grown on Mars.

The fantastic film The Martian, directed by the renowned Ridley Scott and based on the novel by Andy Weir, made a lot of noise in the year of its release not only for its impressive visuals, but also for its bold theory of survival on the red planet. The story follows astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, who finds himself alone on Mars and is forced to survive on the planet using his wits and growing potatoes.

It was the potato story that outraged Earth experts so much that the film was even called a comedy rather than science fiction. However, the rule "he who laughs last has the last laugh" has probably never worked so well. NASA scientists, as true defenders of space, have organised a large-scale experiment to grow potatoes in Martian conditions. OBOZREVATEL tells what happened (be warned, the article contains minor spoilers for the film's plot).

How Watney grew potatoes on Mars

Finding himself in a difficult situation on the red planet, Mark decides to wait for the arrival of Ares IV, which is due to arrive on Mars in a year and a half. And here the astronaut is faced with the question of survival, as the mission he was part of consisted of 6 people and was short-term, so he does not have many resources for survival. Fortunately, the astronauts were provided with 12 potatoes along with the usual "space" food to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was these potatoes that proved to be Watney's saving grace.

In order to grow a new crop of potatoes and provide himself with the necessary calories, Watney decides to start gardening. Luckily, he is a botanist, so he knows his way around.

Potatoes on Mars

He cut each potato into several pieces (each with eyes), let them brew and dry (so they wouldn't rot in the soil), and finally planted them in a soil mixture consisting of Martian soil brought from Earth for the experiments and human faeces left behind by his colleagues who managed to fly away from Mars.

So we have a soil mixture with humus. But you shouldn't do this on Earth, because there is one caveat. Human faeces contain bacteria that, if ingested, can lead to poisoning.

Watney creates seedbeds in which he will later plant potatoes.

Fortunately (yes, despite the failure to return home, Watney was very lucky in the film), NASA preserved the astronauts' faeces by drying them - this killed all pathogens but left the faeces alive enough to be used as humus. For the final "revitalisation", Watney also used his own "fresh" faeces.

Then, like a true botanist, he created a vegetable garden inside the Martian base with beautiful beds and planted potatoes at the appropriate distance from each other. Later, he also had to create a greenhouse effect to make his creation "work", because there is no water on Mars. He also needed some extra oxygen.

Mark Watney and his potato garden on Mars.

As a result, Watney estimated that he managed to grow about 2,000 potatoes on Mars. Probably, it would have been more, if not for an unpleasant incident. But this is no longer relevant to our text...

Potatoes on Mars: can they be grown or not?

Scientists from NASA in collaboration with the Spanish International Potato Centre (CIP) set out to confirm Watney's theory of survival. Of course, no one has sent a real botanist to Mars to plant potatoes. It would have been too expensive, risky, and stupid. So the experiment was conducted on Earth. But don't be disappointed: since all the Martian conditions were met, the result of the experiment can be considered reliable.

The potatoes on Earth were planted in a specially designed CubeSat environment built by engineers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima based on designs and advice provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration at the Ames Research Center (NASA ARC) in California, USA.

The CubeSat contained a container with soil and a tuber. Inside this pressurised environment, the CubeSat supplied nutrient-rich water, controlled the temperature for Mars' day and night conditions, and simulated Martian air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

What was happening in the CubeSat was monitored using various sensors and surveillance cameras that operated in real time.

Potatoes grown as part of a Martian experiment on Earth.

As a result, the scientists were able to determine that potatoes can grow in dry and salty Martian soil with some help from fertilised Earth soil for both nutrition and structure.

"We studied very dry soils found in the desert in southern Peru. These are the most similar to Martian soils found on Earth," said Chris McKay of NASA ARC.

From the experiment, the CIP scientists concluded that future Martian missions hoping to grow potatoes will have to prepare soil with a loose structure and nutrients to ensure that the tubers receive enough air and water for tuberisation.

According to CIP breeder Walter Amoros, one of the benefits of potatoes is their great genetic capacity to adapt to extreme conditions. CIP is harnessing this ability by developing potato clones that are resistant to conditions such as soil salinity and drought to help smallholder farmers grow food in marginal areas that may become more harsh under climate change.

"It was a pleasant surprise to see that the potatoes we bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil," Amoros said of the Martian experiment.

He added that one of the best performers was a very salt-tolerant variety from CIP's subtropical lowland adaptation breeding programme with abiotic stress tolerance, which was also recently released in Bangladesh for cultivation in coastal areas with high soil salinity.

Amoros noted that regardless of the implications of these experiments for Mars missions, they have already provided good news that potatoes can help people survive in extreme conditions on Earth.

As OBOZREVATEL previously reported, scientists have announced the development of so-called space concrete, which can be used to build houses on Mars. The main ingredients of such concrete are potatoes and salt.

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