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Scientists grow potatoes in Martian conditions

Monday 13 March 2017

Peru’s International Potato Centre (CIP) and NASA have managed to grow potatoes in an extreme environment that replicates conditions on Mars.

The breakthrough, announced last week, brings sci-fi theme explored in the 2015 blockbuster The Martian a step closer. In the film, Matt Damon plays a botanist-cum-astronaut who is stranded on Mars and manages to grow potatoes to keep him alive until his erstwhile colleagues can attempt a rescue mission.

Video footage released last week by the CIP shows that this fictional achievement might become a reality. With the possibility of crewed missions to Mars edging closer, CIP’s colleagues in Lima, Peru developed a special ‘CubeSat’ based on designs from NASA. The CubeSat is a hermetically sealed box that replicates conditions on Mars, with high levels of carbon dioxide, low pressure and light levels and temperatures that mimic Mars’ cycles of night and day.  

The video shows sprouts emerging from soil in the CubeSat, and CIP confirmed last week that preliminary results from the trial appear to be positive.

Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute who has worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center and currently works at the technology institute where the CubeSat was developed commented, “Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment. 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. We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best. We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive.”

CIP researchers said the research could also help growers weather the challenges presented by climate change. Potatoes in the CubeSat are being grown in soils from the Pampas de la Joya desert in Peru, which researchers said “are the most Mars-like soils found on Earth.” They hypothesised that any future Mars mission which intends to grow potatoes will have to prepare soil with a loose structure and nutrients to allow the tubers to obtain enough air and water to grow.

Timelapse footage from the experiment can be watched below, and more information on the trial, including live stream of the potato growing experiment is available here.

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