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Space Spuds: NASA Grows Potatoes On Mars-Like Peruvian Soil

17 April 2016, 7:14 am EDT By Catherine Cabral-Isabedra Tech Times
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In case Mars proves to be a habitable planet for humans, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has started to grow potatoes on a Peruvian desert that is similar to Martian soil.

A number of space visionaries like Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos want people to start living and working in space, and they are slowly making it happen by designing and building space habitats.

NASA, for one, is preparing for this by planting spuds on Pampas de La Joya Desert. Scientists from International Potato Center in Lima are also working with the space agency to study the types of potatoes that may be suitable for farming on Mars.

"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. "I think we'll be able to find varieties of potatoes that will grow at cold and low-pressure conditions."

Why Potatoes On A Peruvian Desert?

In 2012, Curiosity rover found that water flows in Mars, which means farming could be possible.

Potato, as a major and global crop, has high adaptability to changes in climate. It is rich in proteins, carbohydrates, iron, vitamin C, and zinc.

According to the International Potato Center, Peru has more than 4,500 varieties of potatoes. The tubers grown in the country are not only good for eating, potatoes can also serve as batteries that humans can use while in space.

Pampas de La Joya Desert is one of Earth's driest spots, receiving only a millimeter of precipitation annually. The desert is part of the large Atacama Desert, which NASA studies for its Mars-like conditions.

Space Spuds For Nutrition

For the potato study, the scientists chose 65 variants of resilient spuds that will be plated in more than 1,300 pounds of soil from the desert.

If the potatoes successfully grow, they will be replanted in a simulator that mimics the atmospheric conditions present on Mars. The atmosphere of Mars has little oxygen and about 96 percent carbon dioxide. The red planet's temperature varies from minus 84 degrees Fahrenheit. It also has high levels of radiation and 60 percent less gravity compared to Earth.

Peruvian scientist Walter Amoros, from the International Potato Center, predicted that 50 percent of the potatoes will successfully grow, but only about 10 percent will produce a good-sized spud. Amoros also stressed that high temperature and severe drought can change the flavor of the yield.

"I don't think they'll grow in the open air [on Mars]. They will have to plant them under controlled conditions, in domes," Amoros added.

At present, astronauts feed on beef, chicken, and salmon jerky. Spices like salt and pepper are available in liquid forms and beverages are consumed with straws.

NASA is also currently conducting other studies of plants like lettuce, which is presently grown in plant chambers inside the International Space Station. 

Raymond Wheeler, NASA plant physiologist, said if humans would live in space, they should not rely on delivered supplies only. Nutrition should also be produced in situ, as it is cheaper and more practical.

If the soil on Mars cannot cultivate the spuds, Wheeler said it could still be produced by hydroponics and aeroponics, with fertilizers coming from inedible plants and urine.

Photo: Nick Saltmarsh | Flickr

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