Dining on Mars, Part 1: Potatoes

Good news everybody! I’ve safely landed on the surface of Mars. I’d already constructed my habitat dome through the magic of telerobotics, so all I had to do when I got here was settle in and get comfy. The next order of business: what am I going to eat?

You may remember that fictional astronaut Mark Watney survived for over a year on Mars on a diet of potatoes and multivitamins. The potatoes provided Watney with the calories his body needed, and the vitamins provided everything else (well, almost everything else).

Watney grew his potatoes in a mixture of Mars dust and “fertilizer.”

So I guess the real question is: can this work in real life? Can potatoes grow in Martian regolith if the regolith is treated with some kind of fertilizer? According to the International Potato Center (C.I.P.) in Peru, yes. At least that’s what it says in this press release from earlier this year.

C.I.P. researchers used soil collected in a southern Peruvian desert, soil which is said to be the most Mars-like soil on Earth. This “Mars analog soil” was mixed with a bit of more traditionally Earth-like soil and then hermetically sealed in a test chamber that simulated Martian environmental conditions (O2 and CO2 levels, air pressure, and temperature).

Unfortunately I can’t find anything peer reviewed concerning this experiment, and I’ve learned to be skeptical of science-related press releases. However this press release refers only to “preliminary results,” so I have to assume a more substantive paper is on the way, and I’ll be eager to read it once it’s published.

In the meantime, I’ll do my best to grow my own potatoes here on Mars. Also I found this paper saying that sweet potatoes would make an ideal crop for long-term space missions. The sweet potato, according to the paper, “grows rapidly, has a higher yield, and greater nutritional values than other crops.”

That makes me even more excited about this Mars mission than ever. I love sweet potatoes!

6 Responses to Dining on Mars, Part 1: Potatoes

  1. Steve Morris says:

    Is this the kind of experiment how might try in your own home? Find some dirt, add your own fertilizer, and plant some potatoes!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting idea, but it seems like finding dirt as sterile as regolith would be a challenge. Even actual regolith on Earth might be quickly colonized from bacteria in the surrounding biosphere.

      Liked by 2 people

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      This is why I really want to read an actual peer reviewed paper on this. The press release just says they used soil gathered from a desert in southern Peru, which is supposedly the most Mars-like soil on Earth, but it doesn’t say what’s so Mars-like about it. Is it just that it’s really dry, or does it have a lot of iron in it, or does it match the pH and/or salinity of Martian regolith? It’s hard to say much without those details.

      Like

  2. I’m with you on sweet potatoes. If I have to be stuck for a year eating only one thing, I’d much rather it be sweet potatoes than the regular variety.

    Liked by 1 person

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