Not So Sci-Fi Anymore: NASA Wants To Grow Potatoes On Mars

NASA scientists and researchers at the Lima-based International Potato Center are trying to figure out a way to grow food on Mars, specifically potatoes. Sound familiar? Matt Damon's character in the film The Martian was a stranded astronaut and botanist that grew potatoes on the barren planet in order to survive.

The teams are working together to determine which type of potato could be "best suited for extraterrestrial farming to support a human settlement on Mars," reports The Wall Street Journal. They are using soil from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in Peru, one of the driest spots on Earth, to help simulate Mars-like growing conditions, and the scientists have selected 65 spud varieties which are known to be the most resilient.

"It's got to be a Martian potato that tastes good," said Julio Valdivia-Silva, a Peruvian astrobiologist with NASA. "It's a big challenge to take a living organism somewhere else. We've never done this before."

The tubers will be planted in over 1,300 pounds of soil that is transported from the desert to Lima. The potatoes that grow successfully will then be planted in a simulator that factors in the atmospheric conditions on Mars. The average temperature on Mars is -84 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows of -284 degrees. Its atmosphere has 96 percent carbon dioxide, has high levels of radiation, and the planet has 60 percent less gravity than Earth.

Scientists predict that the potatoes will have to be planted under controlled conditions, in domes, as the open atmosphere of Mars is extremely harsh. The ability to grow food on Mars, should humans colonize it in the future, would reduce costs and risks of transporting food by shuttle. Raymond Wheeler, plant psychologist at NASA, says, "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. This will be important for achieving sustainable-type systems."