Growing Potatoes on Mars

“My best bet for making calories is potatoes. They grow prolifically and have a reasonable calorie count. … I can’t just live off the land forever. But I can extend my life. The potatoes will last me 76 days.” – The Martian by Andy Weir

The Atacama Desert is a strip of land in northern Chile that reaches into portions of Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. Within it lies a region 10,000 feet in elevation that, thanks to a double rain shadow, is so intensely dry that nothing, not even microbial life, can survive. Rain falls in this region perhaps once every 10 years, and even then precipitation is paltry. This area is so desolate and devoid of life that NASA scientists consider it Mars-like and have used the area to test equipment that is bound for Mars. Studies have found that the soil in this region is similar to Martian soil – so similar, in fact, that it is now being used to test the feasibility of growing potatoes on Mars.

The study is being carried out by NASA in collaboration with Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), an agriculture research institution based in Lima, Peru. The efforts consist of an initial series of three experiments. Apart from investigating methods for growing potatoes in a Martian environment, researchers hope to develop ways to improve potato production on marginal land here on Earth in order to increase yields and provide a sustainable source of food in parts of the world that so desperately need it.

The wild crop relative of the cultivated potato (Solanum tuberosum) is native to the Andes. It was originally domesticated by the indigenous people of Peru at least 8,000 years ago. Spanish explorers brought potatoes back to Europe around 1570, and over the next several hundred years cultivation of potatoes spread throughout the world. It is now one of the world’s top 5 food crops and is a staple food source in many regions. So why not Mars?

potatoes-on-mars-nasa-and-cip

The first phase of experiments is currently under way. A selection of potato cultivars that have attributes such as quick maturity, virus resistance, tolerance to high temperatures, and resistance to drought are being grown in soil taken from the Mars-like region of the Atacama Desert. The second phase will consider the transportation of the potatoes from Earth to Mars, a nine month journey. The harvest from the first experiment will be frozen, thawed, and then planted to determine if the propagules remain viable after making the journey through space. The final phase of the experiments will entail growing the potatoes inside of CubeSat modules in which a Mars-like environment can be simulated. The specifics of these studies vary across multiple reports, so this may be a slight misrepresentation of the actual research program. As official reports emerge, the exact methods will be more clear.

According to this post on the CIP website, this collaboration is “a major step towards building a controlled dome on Mars capable of farming the invaluable crop in order to demonstrate that potatoes can be grown in the most inhospitable environments.” The post goes on to laud the nutrient benefits of the potato and its potential to address issues of food security, poverty, and malnutrition. As NASA seeks for ways to sustain an eventual human mission to Mars, CIP looks to address global hunger. Together they see potential in the potato.

red potatoes

Space programs, even those that seem overly ambitious, offer benefits that can extend into all aspects of our lives. That is why I remain intrigued by experiments such as these that involve growing plants in space or on other planets. We may never find ourselves mass producing food for human populations outside of Earth (or maybe we will), but what we can learn in the process of simply seeing what is possible has great potential to increase our botanical knowledge and improve agricultural efforts here on our home planet.

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Thanks to Franz Anthony, Awkward Botany now has an official logo. Franz is a graphic designer, artist, and illustrator based in Sydney, Australia. Check out his website and his Tumblr, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Also, stay tuned for more of Franz’s graphic design and illustration work here on Awkward Botany. 

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Growing and Eating Lettuce in Space

Journeying outside of low-earth orbit and setting up long-term or permanent colonies on other planets or moons is fraught with challenges. One obvious challenge is food production. Regular deliveries from Earth are costly and risky, and freshness isn’t always an option. So, perhaps food can be grown on site? NASA is currently exploring this question by carrying out a series of experiments using an aptly named piece of hardware called Veggie, which was delivered and installed on the International Space Station in the spring of 2014. Experiments began shortly thereafter, and last month NASA astronauts finally got to taste the leaves of their labor for the first time.

Veggie is a plant growth chamber that was developed by Orbital Technologies Corporation. It provides environmental conditions – such as light, temperature, and airflow – that are suitable for plant growth. Accompanying the delivery of Veggie were three sets of planting pillows – specially designed pouches that contain growing media, fertilizer, and seeds. The pillows are placed on rooting mats inside Veggie and watered using a wicking system . Light is delivered by red, blue, and green LEDs. The red and blue wavelengths are necessary for plant growth, and the green wavelength helps the plants look more appealing to the astronauts.

Veggie: an expandable plant growth facility designed for the International Space Station - photo credit: NASA/Bryan Onate

Veggie: an expandable plant growth facility designed for growing plants on the International Space Station – photo credit: NASA/Bryan Onate

Two sets of pillows were seeded with a variety of red romaine lettuce called ‘Outredgeous.’ This particular plant was chosen because it is easy to grow, tastes good, and has high nutritional value. The first lettuce harvest was sent back to earth last October for a food safety analysis. Once it was deemed free of harmful bacteria and safe to eat, the astronauts were cleared to start the second round of red romaine, which they did in early July 2015. The third set of planting pillows contain zinnia seeds, and according to statements made by astronaut Scott Kelly on Twitter, it doesn’t sound like those have been grown yet.

After caring for the second round of lettuce plants for 33 days, it was finally time to taste them. The astronauts first cleaned each leaf with citric acid based sanitizing wipes and then sampled the leaves plain. Next they tried them with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. They shared their experience in real time via Twitter, which is documented in this New York Times article. They saved a few leaves for their Russian friends who were out on a spacewalk, and then packaged the rest up to be frozen and sent back to Earth for analysis.

Outredgeous Territorial Seed Company

Lactuca sativa ‘Outredgeous’ – the variety of red romaine lettuce grown and eaten by NASA astronauts on the International Space Station (photo credit: Territorial Seed Company)

This isn’t the first time plants have been grown and eaten in space. Russian cosmonauts grew and consumed mizuna (Japanese mustard) back in 2002 using a plant growth chamber developed in collaboration with a lab at Utah State University. They have also used the growth chamber to grow peas, radishes, and other plants. Read more about these experiments here.

Growing plants in space, apart from providing fresh food, offers psychological benefits. In an otherwise sterile and metallic environment, having something green (or red, in the case of the lettuce) to look at and care for has the potential to lift the moods of crew members aboard the space station. NASA scientist, Dr. Gioia Massa, who is overseeing the project sums it up nicely, “The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling, and psychological benefits. I think that plant systems will become important components of any long-duration exploration scenario.”

Want to learn more? Read about the project here, here, and here. Also watch this video about growing plants in space.

 

Just for fun, there is a great children’s fiction book involving plants in space called June 29, 1999 by David Wiesner which is definitely worth a look.

More “Plants in Space” Posts on Awkward Botany:

Growing Plants on the Moon

Growing Plants in Outer Space