Planned NASA experiment to test growing spuds in Mars-like conditions

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In the 2015 sci-fi movie “The Martian,” Matt Damon’s character grew potatoes on Mars, and now NASA wants to, as well.

According to an article from CNBC, NASA and the Peru-based International Potato Centre are experimenting with producing potatoes in Mars-like conditions on Earth. They hope to eventually build a controlled dome on Mars, capable of farming spuds.
In the film, it wasn’t an easy feat to grow potatoes in the harsh conditions of the red planet. There are plenty of factors that go into making NASA’s dream a reality, says Andy Robinson, a potato extension agronomist for North Dakota State University and University of Minnesota.
“You start with the soil,” he says. “The soil has to maintain the right nutrients you need for growth. There’s a lot more carbon dioxide on Mars which would benefit plant growth. The main things we think about are nutrition, sunlight, water — those are the main things that allow a plant to grow. If it was in those right conditions, yes it’s possible.”
It’s challenging to figure out how the space agency would be able to grow potatoes on Mars, because Robinson doesn’t know the exact conditions on the planet, he says. But, he does agree they would have to build some kind of structure to keep the temperature favorable for plant growth.
He hasn’t seen the movie that inspired the experiment, but an article Robinson read suggested Damon’s character should have tried growing the potatoes hydroponically, then he could have cycled the nutrients around the nutrient system.
“We do that when we’re growing potato clones that we use for planting,” Robinson says. “Aeroponically might even be better, because you don’t have the issue of water potentially growing bacteria. It would be a little bit easier to maintain.”
There are benefits to growing potatoes on Mars, Robinson says.
“The good thing about it is if you are in an environment like that, as long as you bring in clean and sterile seed, then hopefully you would eliminate any potential disease issues or outbreaks in your crop,” he says. “One of the nice things about what they’re doing, though, is it’s going to look into potatoes more and see what kind of other stressful situations they can grow in. They could be able to adapt that to other areas in the world where they might be able to grow those potatoes.”
Robinson thinks by experimenting with growing potatoes on Mars, NASA has a goal of sustaining human life. With climate change affecting crops across the globe, NASA’s research could help feed people on Earth.
“I think anytime we’re doing research, you’re going to learn things, and often we learn things we didn’t intend to learn,” Robinson says. “Which is the cool thing about research; sometimes we make mistakes or other things show up. We’re always trying to learn, develop and understand what’s going on in a different system.”
His work isn’t as outside the box as NASA’s, but all research has the same goal in mind, Robinson says.
“My group looks at nutrition, disease, weed management and insect management. A lot of those various things that affect the growth and production of potatoes. I’ve got colleagues in plant pathology, plant breeding, entomology and other various subject areas. We all study different areas. At the end of the day, really, it’s all about trying to develop more sustainable ways of growing potatoes to feed the world.”
He adds, “I think that’s the cool thing they’re doing here. I mean this is a kind out there a little bit more than the typical research study. The potential of what they could learn there I think is really neat, and it’ll be fascinating to see what they find out.”