In the 2015 blockbuster movie “The Martian,” a fictional
botanist-turned-astronaut gets stranded on Mars, forcing him to
the s—” out of his dire situation.
Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, survives by fertilizing
Martian soil with his feces, slicing potatoes, and planting the
cuttings in the soil. This eventually grows him enough food to
last hundreds of days.
But farming on Mars may not remain sci-fi fantasy for very long:
Potatoes on Mars project just grew tubers in Mars-like
conditions, suggesting Watney’s feat might be possible.
NASA has for decades eyed a crewed mission to the red planet, and
Congress just passed a bill that implores the space agency to
reach the planet by 2033. The agency is also exploring ideas
To that end, scientists at NASA and the International Potato
Center in Lima, Peru, built a tuber-growing experiment that
recreated the extreme conditions on the surface of Mars.
Everything happens inside a rocket-launchable box called a
CubeSat. The CubeSat is rigged with pumps, water hoses, LED
lights, and instruments to emulate Mars-like temperatures, light
cycles, gases, and air pressure.
In February, researchers dumped practically lifeless soil from
Peru’s Pampas de la Joya Desert inside, planted a tuber in it,
sealed the box, and began filming to see what happened.
“If the crops can tolerate the extreme conditions that we are
exposing them to in our CubeSat, they have a good chance to grow
on Mars,” Julio Valdivia-Silva, a NASA researcher at the
University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, said in the
Would this actually work on Mars?
The experiment doesn’t provide the ironclad proof a would-be
Martian potato farmer needs.
For one, the soil didn’t come from Mars. Though it was arid and
inhospitable, it probably still had microbes that may have helped
the potato plant to grow.
The experiment also used potato cuttings instead of seeds. That’s
an issue because making potatoes last on a monthslong or
yearslong journey may require heating under pressure, called
thermostabilization, or a blast of radiation. This damages the
cells of a potato, “making it hard to grow plants from cuttings,”
Keith Cowing, the founder of NASA Watch, told
Business Insider in a tweet.
However, several other experiments have shown it may be possible
to grow food in Martian soil and
in even-more-inhospitable moon dust, called regolith.
Bruce Bugbee, a botanist and NASA scientist at Utah State
told Tech Insider in 2015 that there was no reason growing
potatoes or other food crops in Martian soil wouldn’t work. (He
did, however, take issue with Watney mixing his feces into the
soil, which he said may be “toxic to the plants.”)
The CIP, NASA, and other institutions are now watching to see how
several varieties of potatoes perform in the Mars-like CubeSat
box, including special varieties they’ve bred to withstand harsh
“We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which
potato varieties do best,” Valdivia-Silva said. “We want to know
what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive.”
Aside from helping astronaut farmers of the future, the work also
stands to benefit humans on Earth.
“The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with
high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are
affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working,”
Walter Amoros, a potato breeder at CIP, said in the
You can watch the experiment’s potato sprout in the time-lapse
YouTube or below.
Potatoes can grow in ‘extreme’ Mars-like conditions, a new NASA-backed experiment shows – Business Insider