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Spuds on Mars

There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about launching manned missions to Mars with people who will colonize the planet.

For example, Netherlands-based Mars One aims to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2031. Eldon Musk’s SpaceX mission to Mars has joined the race, although they’re short on details at this point.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is on a journey to Mars too, with a goal of sending humans to low-Mars orbit in the early 2030s. That journey is already well under way, with NASA studying potential “exploration zones” on Mars that would offer science research and provide resources astronauts can use.

As humans prepare to blast off to Mars, there is still the question of what they’ll eat once they colonize the red planet.

The front-runner? Potatoes.

Researchers at the Lima-based International Potato Center (CIP) and scientists at NASA are studying which type of potato could be best suited for extraterrestrial farming to support a human settlement on Mars. The Potatoes on Mars project was conceived by CIP to both understand how potatoes might grow in Mars conditions, and also to determine how they survive in extreme conditions that are similar to what some areas on Earth are experiencing.

“When humans go to Mars, they will want to grow things. They’ll need food,” said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center (ARC) in California and participant in the potato study. “I think we’ll be able to find varieties of potatoes that will grow at cold and low-pressure conditions. That would be interesting to know for Mars applications.”

Well, it appears McKay is right. Phase two of CIP’s proof of concept experiment to grow potatoes in simulated Martian conditions began on Feb. 14, 2016 when a tuber was planted in a specially constructed “CubeSat”-contained environment built by engineers from University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima, based upon designs and advice provided by NASA ARC.

“Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment,” says Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute who has worked at NASA ARC and now works at UTEC in Lima. “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.”

The CubeSat houses a container holding soil and the tuber. Inside this hermetically sealed environment, 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 and live-streaming cameras record the soil in anticipation of the potato sprouting.

According to CIP potato breeder Walter Amoros, one advantage is the potato’s genetic capacity for adaptation to extreme environments. CIP has tapped into that capacity by breeding potato clones that tolerate conditions such as soil salinity and drought, in order to help smallholder farmers grow food in marginal areas that could grow harsher under climate change.

In 2016, CIP brought Mars analog soil from the Pampas de La Joya desert in Southern Peru to its experimental station in La Molina, Lima. There, CIP was able to show proof that potatoes could grow in this dry, salty soil with some help from fertilized Earth soil for both nutrition and structure.

From the initial experiment, CIP scientists concluded future Mars missions that hope 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 allow it to tuberize.

According to Amoros, one of the best performing potatoes was a very salt-tolerant variety from the CIP breeding program for adaptation to subtropical lowlands with tolerance to abiotic stress.

Whatever their implications for Mars missions, the experiments have already provided good news about potato’s potential for helping people survive in extreme environments on Earth – and beyond.

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