How to survive on a hostile planet; growing potatoes in Mars-like conditions offers clues

By: | Published: April 3, 2017 6:27 AM

It isn't clear yet if actor Matt Damon's character (an astronaut stranded on Mars) in the movie The Martian growing potatoes on the Red Planet inspired a similar experiment here on Earth.

hostile planet, Mars, Matt Damon, Peru's University of Engineering and Technology, NASA, Lake Titicaca, SpaceIt isn’t clear yet if actor Matt Damon’s character (an astronaut stranded on Mars) in the movie The Martian growing potatoes on the Red Planet inspired a similar experiment here on Earth. (Source: Reuters)

It is not often that reel inspires the real. It isn’t clear yet if actor Matt Damon’s character (an astronaut stranded on Mars) in the movie The Martian growing potatoes on the Red Planet inspired a similar experiment here on Earth. But scientists at Peru’s University of Engineering and Technology have grown a potato plant under simulated Mars-like conditions. The scientists, with assistance from the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), built a simulator—a Mars-in-a-box, as The Guardian puts it—that had sub-zero temperatures, with air inside concentrated with carbon monoxide and its pressure at levels that are found at very high altitudes (upwards of 6,000 ft). The box also simulated Martian light conditions.

Peru was where the potato was first domesticated—near Lake Titicaca that lies on its border with Bolivia, high up in the Andes. The scientists sourced the soil—700 kg of it—from Pampas de la Joya, a barren, arid (receiving less than a milimetre of rainfall annually) place in the south of the country. The soil is much like Mars’s highly saline soil. Sixty-five varieties were planted in the soil of which just four sprouted. The one that survived is a variety that is known as, aptly, Unique. What is also interesting is that potatoes have survived very harsh conditions. While scientists have hailed the study of thresholds of survival, the real import of the study is just as much about growing crops on Mars—which could be a reality if mankind were to colonise the planet some day—as it is about testing crops for harsh growing conditions on Earth itself.

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With rapid climate change, the hardiest varieties need to be identified and trials must be conducted to understand their survival capacity. The potato study will help mankind understand how life can get by on a barren, hostile planet—which could well be the future of Earth if the ilk of climate change deniers in power swells.

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