Seeing as we, humans, are planning to colonize other planets one day, most likely starting with Mars, there are several things we need for that. And one of the most important things that we need is food. But while NASA is generally known for the agency’s original ideas, this time they decided they needed a little inspiration.
So, taking note from the more or less (more ‘less’ than ‘more’) scientifically accurate movie The Martian, NASA will cultivate potatoes on Mars. They are currently undergoing tests in the one place on Earth with soil that has similar properties to that on the surface of the Red Planet, the Atacama Desert in Peru.
But as you might expect, there is so much more to it than just growing potatoes in the desert. And yet, not all news is bad. Contrary to what Matt Damon (or should I say Marl Watney?) would have us believe, the soil on Mars actually does contain the nutrients needed by plants to survive, so that’s going to be far easier to accomplish than in the movie.
What the movie did get right, however, is how unfavorable the air is for allowing anything to grow. In fact, the Martian atmosphere is made mostly out of carbon dioxide and is one hundred thinner than that on Earth. Additionally, there are high levels of radiation and powerful dust storms, as well as an average temperature of 84 degrees Fahrenheit.
So while the team currently testing the potatoes might have caught a lucky break with the soil, the conditions in which they have to grow the potatoes are very difficult to replicate. So, the team thought that the best idea would be to simply grow the potatoes under controlled conditions, under a series of domes.
Going through some 4,500 varieties of Peruvian potatoes, the team settled for just 65. They would be the preferred food because of the high nutrient content they contain, being rich in carbohydrates, proteins, iron, vitamin C, and zinc. Plus, they do want the Martian potatoes to taste good.
Still, if the Martian soil will turn out to be hostile and unable to sustain potatoes, there are other ways to have the plants on the Red Planet. The top two alternatives would be hydroponics and aeroponics, both techniques meant to facilitate the growth of plants in the absence of nutritious soil.
But potatoes wouldn’t be the first plants grown in space. In fact, American astronaut Scott Kelly recently grew zinnias on the ISS, while previous experiments saw barley, wheat, peas, and brassicas grown on either the ISS or the Russian Mir space station. The next step is to grow tomatoes on the ISS in 2018.
Image source: YouTube