In yet another instance of life imitating the movies, NASA scientists are taking tips from The Martian and looking for hardy potatoes that can grow on the Red Planet. Astronauts with a taste for something besides tubers might prefer they watch some Star Trek flicks and work on a replicator, but it’s at least a good sign that they‘re thinking about manned Martian missions.
While Idaho probably has the most famous potatoes, Peru is where they were first domesticated and still has the biggest variety of the more than 4,000 types grown around the world. That’s where NASA scientists are teaming up with the International Potato Center (CIP) to find a spud that can grow in Martian soil under the planet’s harsh environmental conditions – and hopefully without having to mimic the movie by using human waste for fertilizer.
Phase one is already underway. Nine varieties of LTVR (lowland tropic virus-resistant) potato clones have been selected for their virus resistance, drought and heat tolerance and fast growth rate. They’ve been planted in soil from the La Joya Pampas area of the Atacama Desert which has extremely low levels of microorganisms and organic material and high levels of oxidizing chemical elements, making it close to Martian soil. The spuds and soil are in a sealed laboratory simulating Mars’ 95% carbon dioxide atmosphere.
Once the toughest taters are found, they will enter phase two where the potatoes will be frozen for nine months to simulate the trip to Mars. Freezing will also keep them from germinating.
After nine months in the freezer, those potatoes that thaw out alive will be launched into space on a CubeSat to see how they’ll grow in low atmospheric conditions like on the surface of Mars.
The winners of this Ironspud competition (NASA is hoping for up to five varieties) will then have to wait for the first manned Mars mission to launch. But fame and fortune may come sooner than that. Like New Yorkers, if they can make it on Mars, they can make it anywhere. These super hardy potatoes will also have missions on Earth in areas desperately in need of foods that can grow in drought conditions and poor soil.
While they can grow without feces, these potatoes would probably still like to be in a movie with Matt Damon.