Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Spuds from the Red Planet? NASA Really Does Want to Grow Potatoes on Mars

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Spuds from the Red Planet? NASA Really Does Want to Grow Potatoes on Mars

Article excerpt

In a case of life imitating art, NASA, like the fictional botanist Mark Watney, is experimenting with growing Martian potatoes, though so far only in the Mars-like soil of the Peruvian desert. Growing food will be critical to long-term human missions to Mars.

"In 'The Martian,' Mark Watney uses the Martian soil to grow potatoes in the controlled environment of the 'Hab,'" NASA writes in a blog post. "In reality, the soil on Mars actually does have the nutrients plants would need to survive on Mars!"

NASA and scientists at the Lima-based International Potato Center are testing 65 of the 4,500 varieties of Peruvian potatoes to determine which are best suited for deep-space cultivation. Potatoes are adaptable to many climates and are considered highly nutritious, with carbohydrates, protein, vitamin C, iron, and zinc.

"It's got to be a Martian potato that tastes good," Julio Valdivia-Silva, a Peruvian astrobiologist with NASA, told the Wall Street Journal in Peru. "It's a big challenge to take a living organism somewhere else. We've never done this before," he said.

Peru is home to the experiment because of its Pampas de La Joya Desert, one of the driest places on Earth, as the Journal explains. It is part of South America's Atacama Desert, which is prized by NASA for its Mars-like conditions, particularly its dirt.

But while it's one thing to figure out how to grow potatoes in Martian soil, which has many of the essential plant nutrients, such as iron, zinc, potassium, and nitrogen, it is another to grow them in the hostile environment on the Red Planet. On Mars, the average temperature is minus 84 degrees Fahrenheit. There are high levels of radiation and dust storms, and an atmosphere, 100 times thinner than Earth's, made mostly of carbon dioxide.

"I've done tests under stressful conditions, but never so stressful," Walter Amoros, a scientist with the International Potato Center, told the Journal. …

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