While some NASA scientists are preparing for the more technical side of the Mars mission planned for the 2030s, others are focusing on a different task: growing food. The task is not far off from what fictional botanist Mark Watneydid in "The Martian," using the Mars-like soil of the Peruvian desert in order to experiment with growing potatoes, which will be critical to long-term human missions to Mars in the real world.
"In 'The Martian,' Mark Watney uses the Martian soil to grow potatoes in the controlled environment of the 'Hab,'" NASA said. "In reality, the soil on Mars actually does have the nutrients plants would need to survive on Mars!"
NASA is currently working closely with scientists at the Lima-based International Potato Center to test 65 of the 4,500 available varieties of Peruvian potatoes in order to determine those best for cultivation in space. Potatoes were chosen due to their ability to adapt to many different climates as well as their high nutritional content, containing carbohydrates, protein, vitamin C, iron and zinc.
"It's got to be a Martian potato that tastes good," said Julio Valdivia-Silva, a Peruvian astrobiologist with NASA. "It's a big challenge to take a living organism somewhere else. We've never done this before."
Why Peru? It contains the Pampas de La Joya Desert, one of the driest places on Earth, and is also a part of South America's Atacama Desert, which contains numerous Mars-like conditions such as its dirt.
The challenge now comes with determining how to grow potatoes on the Red Planet, which possesses high levels of radiation and dust and an average temperature of minus 84 degrees Fahrenheit. To make things even more difficult, its atmosphere is 100 times thinner than the Earth's and composed mostly of carbon dioxide.
"I've done tests under stressful conditions, but never so stressful," said Walter Amoros, a scientist with the International Potato Center. "I don't think they'll grow in the open air [on Mars]. They will have to plant them under controlled conditions, in domes."
Thus far, astronauts have successfully grown wheat, barley, brassicas and peas in space. Potatoes are the next big step, and the next few years of experimentation will determine whether this will be possible.
"I think having this fresh food source available is going to be critical," said Gioia Massa, a project scientist at NASA Kennedy Space Center. "The farther and longer humans go away from Earth, the greater the need to be able to grow plants for food, atmosphere recycling and psychological benefits."