Buoyed by the preliminary results of growing potatoes in extreme climate similar to Mars, the International Potato Center or CIP has expressed optimism that potatoes can be grown in Mars.

The farming trials of CIP used simulated Martian conditions and the experiment kicked off in February 2016 at Lima in Peru. The results show that it is possible to grow potatoes in salty and dry soils.

In the experiment, fertilized earth soil was also used for augmenting nutrition. The Mars-like soil was brought from the Pampas de La Joya desert in Peru to La Molina, the CIP station, in Lima.

Tuber Grown In CubeSat

In the experiment, a tuber was planted in a custom-made CubeSat developed by the engineers at University of Engineering and Technology guided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Ames Research Center, California.

"Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment," said Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute working with UTEC in Lima.

He noted that if the crops can sustain the extreme conditions in CubeSat, they can very well grow on Mars as well and further studies will confirm the minimum conditions required.

Walter Amoros, potato breeder of CIP, noted that potatoes display great genetic capacity for adaptation to extreme environments.

A variant of the Martian experiment was tried in Bangladesh and there the potatoes survived in salty environments.

"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.

How Does It Work?

The CubeSat where potatoes are grown was equipped with an array of sensors and cameras for monitoring the tuber's progress. Nutrient-rich water, temperature, atmosphere and air pressure were simulated to match the Martian conditions.

"The question we want to know is, can you grow food on Mars," said Chris McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center.

More experiments will follow in finalizing the type of potatoes that will have optimum productivity and in understanding the ideal conditions for survival in terms of pressure and temperatures.

The CIP experiment is also a boon to potato farmers as the tests are exploring the adaptability of the crop to extreme conditions that might unfold once climate change starts hitting Earth. Potatoes are generally grown under warm conditions.

However, in the case of Mars, the temperatures and pressure are much lower compared with Earth. If potatoes can grow sustainably braving Mars-like conditions, it will be an incentive for future astronauts to Mars who can avoid building warm conditions to simulate Earth-like conditions.

"Maybe it could be a tenth of Earth-like conditions," McKay said.

McKay asserted NASA will take the potato experiment to Mars and grow them on the red soil.

"We'd do that experiment way before people go to Mars," McKay added.

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