Right on the heels of learning that Chinese scientists had figured out how to grow mangoes in space, scientists at the International Potato Center in Peru have identified a potato that will grow on Mars. This is excellent news for earthlings. A discovery like this one can, of course, benefit further Martian exploration. However, perhaps even more importantly, discovering a crop that can thrive in such a harsh climate is a big deal: It gives some hope to areas where farmland has already been affected by climate change.
According to astrobiologist Julio Valdivia, who’s working with NASA on the potato project, "It's not only about bringing potatoes to Mars, but also finding a potato that can resist non-cultivable areas on Earth.” Essentially, instead of growing potatoes on this planet, they we can grow them on Mars.
To find this magic potato, researchers in Peru—coincidentally the birthplace of domesticated potatoes—transplanted 1,540 pounds of soil from Peru’s arid southern coast to Lima. This area gets less than one millimeter of rain a year, making it comparable to Mars's climate. Then they built a simulator, controlling the atmosphere to mimic that of Mars, which meant extremely high carbon dioxide levels, below-zero air temperatures, and air pressure similar to that at 20,000 feet above sea level.
In these harsh conditions, scientists planted 65 varieties of potatoes and waited to see which, if any, thrived. Only four varieties survived. Scientists then replaced the soil with a combination of crushed rock and nutrient solution to better represent Martian conditions, and replanted a more robust species in it. The winner? The appropriately named “Unique” varietal, which stood up to the harsh conditions, no problem.
Next, scientists will attempt to make an even more Mars-like atmosphere, further increasing carbon-dioxide contents, and build three more simulators to run further tests. It’s one small step for man, but one giant leap for potato lovers of all kinds.