When Matt Damon’s fictional astronaut grew potatoes to keep himself alive on Mars in The Martian, you may have been skeptical. But now real scientists have evidence that his plan wasn’t so impossible.
Last year, scientists from the International Potato Center set out to discover whether potatoes can grow under Mars’ atmospheric conditions, hoping to prove the tubers can flourish under extreme climates on Earth. Working with NASA, they planted potatoes in soil from the Pampas de La Joya desert in Southern Peru, the organization said in a statement.
This dry, salty environment contains “the most Mars-like soils found on Earth,” NASA scientist Chris McKay said in the statement.
When researchers placed the potatoes in a hermetically sealed CubeSat built by engineers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima, the plants started to grow. The CubeSat delivers nutrient-rich water, and controls the temperature, air pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to mimic Mars.
There’s even a live stream of the experiment can be viewed below.
“If the crops can tolerate the extreme conditions that we are exposing them to in our CubeSat, they have a good chance to grow on Mars,” said Julio Valdivia-Silva of UTEC.
This is just an initial experiment, and potatoes on the Red Planet would need to be kept in a greenhouse with carefully regulated temperature, water and air quality, just like in the CubeSat. After all, when the side blew off the greenhouse Damon’s Mark Watney built in The Martian, his potato plants were in bad shape.
In the meantime, the scientists are hopeful their discovery could lead to breeding potatoes that could stand up to coming climate changes and help address food insecurity here on Earth.