In 2015, Matt Damon reprised his role of “confused Boston actor” in the sci-fi film The Martian. The We Bought a Zoo star was able to survive for months on the Red Planet thanks to his ingenious decision to grow potatoes for food. Now, a NASA-backed project wants to see if Matt Damon’s potato scheme could actually work on Mars. And the early results are promising.
Image: 20th Century Fox
In February 2016, the International Potato Center (CIP) — which is a real place — began its second phase of a project to grow potatoes using the driest soils from the Peruvian desert. The team surmised that if the project was successful, the findings could help astronauts master the art of growing potatoes on Mars. After all, the soil used was imported back to the CIP’s lab in Lima, Peru precisely for its Mars-like aridity and high salt content. The project was aptly named “Potatoes on Mars”.
Now, the CIP has released video footage showing that the team has indeed grown potatoes using this Mars-like soil. By planting a tuber in a CubeSat designed by engineers from University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima, the team was able to create a hermetically sealed environment for the potatoes to grow in — and they did.
“Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment,” Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute involved with the project, said in a statement. “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.”
It’s important to note that the experiment spiked the dry desert soil with fertilised soil, similar to how Matt Damon used his own faeces to add nutrients to his Martian soil. The experiment claims to have emulated Mars’s atmosphere, by creating a low pressure environment with high CO2 levels within the CubeSat. That said, the actual air pressure on Mars is roughly 0.6 per cent that found at mean sea level on Earth, and it’s hard to imagine plants evolved to our atmospheric pressure growing under such conditions. Obviously, the experiment did not try to simulate Mars’ surface temperatures. Gizmodo reached out to the International Potato Center for more information on growing conditions inside the simulated Mars environment, but had not heard back at time of writing.
Whether or not the experiment was truly able to replicate farming conditions on Mars, these results are certainly exciting. Potatoes have been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years, and with all this talk of a human colony on Mars, they might be more critical than ever. The question now is, is Elon Musk prepared to become a potato farmer?
He (and you) can check out the potato growing live stream here.