You are here

NASA Really Is Trying to Grow Potatoes on Mars

PAMPAS DE LA JOYA, Peru—As humans prepare to blast off to Mars, there is still the question of what they’ll eat once they colonize the red planet. Scientists who have traveled here to the Peruvian desert say they have the answer. Potatoes.

Researchers at the Lima-based International Potato Center and scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are studying which type of potato could be best suited for extraterrestrial farming to support a human settlement on Mars. If everything goes as planned, the Martian colonies could be munching on french fries, chips and mashed potatoes one day.

NASA says the Pampas de La Joya Desert in southern Peru has soil conditions like Mars. PHOTO: RYAN DUBE/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“It’s got to be a Martian potato that tastes good,” Julio Valdivia-Silva, a Peruvian astrobiologist with NASA, said while surveying the reddish-brown desert on a trip to collect soil. “It’s a big challenge to take a living organism somewhere else. We’ve never done this before.”

The idea is literally science fiction, included in the Hollywood blockbuster “The Martian,” where Matt Damon played a stranded astronaut and botanist who plants potatoes to survive on Mars. It’s also not so far-fetched. 

Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit foundation, plans to send individuals to the planet in about 10 years on a one-way trip to establish a permanent colony. Inventor Elon Musk says his spacecraft company, SpaceX, also hopes to send humans within a decade but warned during a startup conference in Hong Kong in January that it would be “hard and dangerous and difficult in every way you can imagine.”

NASA, which landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012 and found last year that water flows there, has recently announced plans to land astronauts.

That will be when the potato comes in handy.

“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 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.”

The potato is a major global crop thanks to its ability to adapt to a variety of climates and its abundance of carbohydrates, as well as protein, vitamin C, iron and zinc. Peru, birthplace of the humble tuber, is home to over 4,500 varieties, more than anywhere else, according to the International Potato Center. Potatoes here also have another advantage: They’re not just for eating.

Reddish, purple and yellow spuds are used as dyes. Potatoes can be used as a battery. In Peru’s rural highlands, a lumpy potato called “the weeping bride” is given by the groom’s mother to the bride-to-be to test how good a wife she will be (it all depends on how neatly she peels the hard-to-peel spud).

In ‘The Martian,’ Matt Damon played a stranded astronaut trying to grow potatoes on Mars. PHOTO:20THCENTFOX/EVERETT COLLECTION

Peru is good for the experiment because of the Pampas de La Joya Desert, one of the driest spots on Earth, which receives about a millimeter of precipitation a year. It is part of South America’s vast Atacama Desert that has long been studied by NASA for its Mars-like conditions, in particular its dirt.

For the potato study, scientists selected 65 varieties of spuds known to be the most resilient.

The first step will be to plant the tubers in over 1,300 pounds of soil transported from this desert to Lima. If they grow successfully, the potatoes will then be planted in a simulator that factors in the atmospheric conditions on Mars.

Walter Amoros, a Peruvian scientist at the International Potato Center, said he thinks half of the potatoes will grow in the desert soil, but only about 10 will yield a good-sized tuber. The flavor could change under the stress, he warned, which is common on Earth when potatoes are exposed to severe drought and high temperatures. That sometimes makes them so bitter they are inedible. 

On Mars, the temperature averages minus 84 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows of minus 284 degrees, according to NASA. It has high levels of radiation and over 60% less gravity than Earth. Its atmosphere has 96% carbon dioxide, with only a tiny amount of oxygen. Then there are the dust storms and salty water.

The potatoes “are going to pass through an acid test. I’ve done tests under stressful conditions, but never so stressful,” Mr. Amoros said. “I don’t think they’ll grow in the open air [on Mars]. They will have to plant them under controlled conditions, in domes.”

Early space travelers relied on paste-like food squeezed from aluminum tubes. Today, astronauts have a more appetizing menu: chicken, beef and even salmon jerky. Salt and pepper are provided in liquid form, to prevent them from floating away. There is coffee, orange juice and lemonade, consumed through straws.

NASA’s plant studies are currently focused on leafy greens like lettuce, which has been grown in small plant chambers on the international space station. They also plan to study Chinese cabbage and dwarf tomatoes. While less nutritious than potatoes, researchers hope the greens will be able to complement astronauts’ diet during space flights.

Scientists say growing food—should humans colonize Mars—would reduce costs and mitigate risks of transporting food by shuttle.

“If something goes wrong, if you can produce some of your own food in situ, then you have that as a means to sustain yourself,” said Raymond Wheeler, a plant physiologist at NASA.

Until cultivating begins, scientists foresee transporting potatoes to Mars in refrigerated tubes. They could be planted by machines in a controlled environment before humans arrive. If Martian soil proves to be too hostile, there are options of growing them without soil by hydroponics and aeroponics, which deliver nutrients in water and air, respectively.

They will still need fertilizer, which scientists say could be resolved on Mars by recycling nutrients from urine and inedible plant parts.

“This will be important for achieving sustainable-type systems,” Mr. Wheeler said, “regardless of the approach.”

Abel Yapo, a student volunteer who helped dig up the desert soil, said he hopes one day to eat potatoes on Mars. “It would be a dream,” he said. “With my potatoes from the results we get here.”