NASA is now experimenting growing potatoes in Peru’s dry, desolate Atacama Desert to test if they are fit to grow in the similar environment of Mars. Will these tubers be the right stuff for planting on the Red Planet?

The U.S. space agency will start the pioneering tests together with the International Potato Center (CIP) of Lima next month, cultivating a hundred out of 4,500 registered varieties already rigorously evaluated for the extreme conditions on Mars.

Of the selected potato varieties, 40 are native to the Andes Mountains and are conditioned for varying ecological zones, sudden climate changes, and reproduction in rocky, arid landscape. The remaining 60 are genetically modified for survival with little water and salt, as well as immunity to viruses.

The final criterion: the potatoes should grow well on Mars and in huge quantities.

Peruvian NASA scientist Julio Valdivia Silva said they are “almost 100 percent certain” that many of the candidates will pass the strict tests of the project, which is also hoped to address malnutrition and hunger on Earth as they can grow in harsh, trying conditions.

“We must be prepared for the future,” added CIP scientist Jan Kreuze, who was pertaining to elements such as desertification, increasing temperatures, and high salt levels in soil.

Two hundred pounds of the potatoes will be transported to a CIP laboratory in Peru, simulating the intricate, carbon dioxide-rich, extremely UV-radiated environment of Mars. Definitive results are expected within a year or two, with an unmanned Mars mission expected in over five years from now.

Valdivia Silva added that they will try aeroponics, which is used to cultivate plants without the presence of soil, if the current plan does not work.

According to experts, the soil on Mars could serve as appropriate for food cultivation – but not without plenty of challenges.

Wageningen University professor Leo Marcelis, a “Mars One” project advisor, said in the past that one issue would be the low gravity, which makes it difficult for water to run downwards and hinder proper gas exchange in plants. Mars’ temperature is low, barely with any atmosphere and with much less light than Earth.

Last Valentine’s Day, astronaut Scott Kelly harvested zinnias aboard the International Space Station – again working on the possibility of humans growing their own food for Mars and deep space missions.

NASA remains optimistic that testing flowering pants, longer-term fruit crops such as tomatoes and peppers, and potatoes will lead to sustainable food production systems as the agency is moving toward long-duration exploration and the much-heralded human journey to Mars.

Photo: Nick Saltmarsh | Flickr

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