Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, survives by fertilizing Martian soil with his feces, slicing potatoes, and planting the cuttings in the soil. This eventually grows him enough food to last hundreds of days.
But farming on Mars may not remain sci-fi fantasy for very long: The NASA-backed Potatoes on Mars project just grew tubers in Mars-like conditions, suggesting Watney’s feat might be possible.
NASA has for decades eyed a crewed mission to the red planet, and Congress just passed a bill that implores the space agency to reach the planet by 2033. The agency is also exploring ideas of a Martian colony.
To that end, scientists at NASA and the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru, built a tuber-growing experiment that recreated the extreme conditions on the surface of Mars.
Everything happens inside a rocket-launchable box called a CubeSat. The CubeSat is rigged with pumps, water hoses, LED lights, and instruments to emulate Mars-like temperatures, light cycles, gases, and air pressure.
In February, researchers dumped practically lifeless soil from Peru’s Pampas de la Joya Desert inside, planted a tuber in it, sealed the box, and began filming to see what happened.
“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,” Julio Valdivia-Silva, a NASA researcher at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, said in the release.
Would this actually work on Mars?
The experiment doesn’t provide the ironclad proof a would-be Martian potato farmer needs.
For one, the soil didn’t come from Mars. Though it was arid and inhospitable, it probably still had microbes that may have helped the potato plant to grow.
The experiment also used potato cuttings instead of seeds. That’s an issue because making potatoes last on a monthslong or yearslong journey may require heating under pressure, called thermostabilization, or a blast of radiation. This damages the cells of a potato, “making it hard to grow plants from cuttings,” Keith Cowing, the founder of NASA Watch, told Business Insider in a tweet.
However, several other experiments have shown it may be possible to grow food in Martian soil and in even-more-inhospitable moon dust, called regolith.
Bruce Bugbee, a botanist and NASA scientist at Utah State University, told Tech Insider in 2015 that there was no reason growing potatoes or other food crops in Martian soil wouldn’t work. (He did, however, take issue with Watney mixing his feces into the soil, which he said may be “toxic to the plants.”)
The CIP, NASA, and other institutions are now watching to see how several varieties of potatoes perform in the Mars-like CubeSat box, including special varieties they’ve bred to withstand harsh conditions.
“We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best,” Valdivia-Silva said. “We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive.”
Aside from helping astronaut farmers of the future, the work also stands to benefit humans on Earth.
“The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working,” Walter Amoros, a potato breeder at CIP, said in the organization’s release.