Potatoes Can Grow on Mars: CubeSat Indicator Experiment

Potatoes Can Grow on Mars: CubeSat Indicator Experiment

Colonization of Mars in future is an ambitious project for NASA, ESA, other space agencies but the project presents many challenges for scientists. CubeSat indicator experiment has shown that growing potatoes on Mars will be possible. Planet Mars presents extreme weather conditions and growing crops on the Red Planet will be essential for long term survival. Researchers at International Potato Center planned to grow potatoes under Mars-like conditions. In their initial research project, researchers have reported encouraging results.

The CubeSat for the project was designed by engineers at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, Peru. The research team reported that potatoes grown under extreme conditions are growing rapidly. The CubeSat mimics day and night pattern on the Red Planet.

Potatoes can withstand stress and the variety grown during the current experiment is facing temperature, atmosphere and air pressure similar to that on Mars.

The proof of concept experiment started on February 14, 2016. The research team working on the project is receiving advice from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Ames Research Center (NASA ARC), California.

Researcher said that if potatoes can survive in extreme conditions they are facing during the experiment, there is a high chance that we can grow crops on Mars in future.

Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute who has worked at NASA ARC said, “Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment. 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. We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive.”

Potatoes were chosen both for their hardiness and genetic adaptability in the face of hardships, CIP potato breeder Walter Amoros said in a statement. The center also distributes unique varieties of potato to communities around the world located in areas not well suited to crop growth.

“The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working,” Amoros said.

The research paper published by the team further informed....

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 potato great 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 that 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.

"It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we've bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil," Amoros said. He added that one of the best performing varieties was very salt-tolerant from the CIP breeding program for adaptation to subtropical lowlands with tolerance to abiotic stress that was also recently released as a variety in Bangladesh for cultivation in coastal areas with high soil salinity.

Amoros noted that 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.

"The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working," he said.