The humble potato is a staple food for many cultures across the globe. But it may just be an important food for the future of space exploration.
A recent experiment has taken place in the Peruvian capital, Lima. The experiment saw a potato plant growing in conditions similar to what you might find on the surface of Mars. Exciting stuff! Experiments were conducted using Peru’s desert soil. Conditions were set up to mimic the harsh climate on Mars. These included an atmosphere rich in Carbon Dioxide.
The experiments were completed at the International Potato Centre and early results show a lot of promise. The hope is that one-day potatoes may well be able to be harvested in the harsh conditions on Mars.
The research has a multitude of purposes because it won’t just aid future space exploration but may also be used to aid countries with arid climates that find agriculture taxing.
Julio Valdivia a Peruvian astrobiologist highlighted how the project wasn’t just about the idea of growing vegetables on Mars but finding crops that can resist the elements and grow in difficult areas on our own planet. The result of this could change our planets agriculture dramatically.
Life imitating art
The project was seemingly partly inspired by the Hollywood blockbuster “The Martian” which was about an astronaut who found himself stranded on the red planet. He was able to cultivate potatoes in order to provide himself with sustenance.
The scientists working at the centre built what you might call a Mars-in-a-box. The small container was used to simulate conditions on mars including sub-zero temperatures, high levels of Carbon monoxide and mars-like air pressure. They also set the lighting to mimic what would be found on Mars.
They were aided by Intel from colleagues at Nasa’s Ames Research Centre in California who gave advice on the conditions to use.
In a lot of ways, Peru seemed like an apt location to conduct this particular experiment. It is essentially the birthplace of the domestic potato. Potatoes were first grown in Peru some 7000 years ago. It is still a big part of the Peruvian culture with 4000 different varieties of potato being grown throughout the nation. Sometimes in cold, barren areas.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of soil with high salt content in Peru. Which is great as that makes it similar to what is found on Mars. Though obviously, the surface of mars lacks the organic material found in earth’s soil. Plus the area receives very little rainfall so in that respect it is ideal as a comparison.
More than 1500 lbs of this soil were transported to the International Potato Centre. Out of the 65 varieties of potato that were tested only four sprouted from the soil.
A second experiment was conducted where only the most robust species were planted. The conditions were set to create an environment even more extreme. The soil was replaced with crushed rock and a nutrient solution.
Even then something managed to grow. The potato variety that managed to flourish even in these unlikely conditions is aptly named “Unique.”
Valdivia commented that this variation is essentially a “super potato”. Among its many great qualities are the fact it is highly resistant to extremes of Carbon Dioxide and cold.
Although Nasa has helped with this project they have also been conducting their own experiments. They are trying to see how they can utilise agriculture not just on the surface of Mars but in spacecraft as well.
Ray Wheeler who takes the lead on this project has stated that growing plants in the open air on Mars wouldn’t be possible. He is positive that the ramifications mean that growing plants in a “greenhouse” like set up is plausible.