Thursday March 16, 2017 Q&A

What crops can we now grow on Mars?


1 wheat

2 maize

3 potatoes

Question related image
Correct answer: (3) Potatoes It’s true: we can now grow spuds in space – or, more precisely, on Mars. Researchers at the International Potato Center in Peru (CIP) recently reported that a potato tuber they planted in a “CubeSat contained environment” that simulates the conditions of the red planet has sprouted. The “Potatoes in Space” experiment, which strongly evokes The Martian, began on 14 February 2016 and the CIP describes the preliminary results as “positive”. The CubeSat container mimics Martian temperatures and atmospheric conditions. It is hermetically sealed and holds Mars-like soil and a potato tuber. The CubeSat delivers nutrient-rich water, controls the temperature for Mars day and night conditions and mimics Mars air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Sensors constantly monitor these conditions while live-streaming cameras record the soil in anticipation of the potato sprouting. The system is built by the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima, and it is based on designs and advice by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. The idea behind the project is simple: Potatoes would be a major source of nutrition for future Mars explorers. An excellent source of carbohydrates, potatoes are so robust and genetically adaptable that they can grow anywhere from sea level to altitudes of 4700 meters. A boiled potato can provide up to half of the daily requirements of vitamin C, and is full of other nutrients like vitamin B, iron, potassium and zinc. It is no wonder why the humble potato has played center stage in world history. But will potatoes grow on Martian soil? It seems so. Even though the CIP hasn’t made public the composition of the soil they used, they do mention that they explored very dry, salty soils from the southern Peruvian desert, which are the most Mars-like soils on Earth. The early conclusion is that to grow potatoes on Mars, astronauts will have to prepare soil with a loose structure and nutrients so that the tubers get enough air and water to sprout. The CIP scientists are planning to perform more experiments. "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," says Julio Valdivia-Silva a researcher with the SETI Institute and UTEC who is working on the project. The scientists will perform several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties grow best, and determine the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive. So get ready for future brand names like “taters in craters”!