Are Peru’s potatoes made of the right stuff? That’s the question NASA scientists will be asking in March, when a selection of tubers will be undergoing tests to find out whether they’re fit to grow on Mars.
NASA, the US space agency, is leading this groundbreaking experiment together with Lima’s International Potato Center (Centro Internacional de la Papa: CIP) in Lima, a nonprofit research facility that seeks to reduce poverty and guarantee food security.
They will grow hundreds of selected varieties of potato and subject them to rigorous evaluation in locations with extreme, Mars-like conditions, with the ultimate aim of building a dome on the Red Planet for farming this vegetable.
The selection was made from a total of 4500 CIP-registered varieties. Of the selected candidates, 40 are native to the Andes Mountains, adapted to grow in different ecological zones, withstand sudden climate changes and reproduce in rocky, arid terrain. The other 60 are genetically modified varieties able to survive with little water and salt. They are also immune to viruses.
Those that pass the tests must meet a final criterion: they must be able not only to grow well on Mars but also reproduce in large numbers.
“We’re almost 100 percent certain that many of the selected potatoes will past these difficult tests,” said Julio Valdivia Silva, a Peruvian NASA astrobiologist who is taking part in this ambitious project.
The scientists hope the experiment will also help to tackle the earthly scourges of hunger and malnutrition by identifying varieties suited to growing in harsh conditions.
“We must be prepared for the future,” said virologist Jan Kreuze, a CIP scientist. “We have to be able to respond to the challenges of desertification, rising temperatures and high salt content in the soil.”
The crop of the future
The soil in La Joya Pampas, a sector of the Atacama Desert in southern Peru considered to be one of the driest places on earth, is very similar to that found on Mars. The scientists plan to transport 100 kilos of it to a CIP laboratory in Lima that will simulate the complex, mainly CO2 Martian atmosphere and expose the soil sample to extreme ultraviolet radiation.
“We’ll have more concrete results in one or two years”, Valdivia said, adding that it will take more than five years to launch an unmanned mission to Mars.
Curiously enough, the potential future space crop is also one of the oldest on earth. Records of potato cultivation date back to 2500 BCE, when the indigenous Aymara Indians farmed the crop in modern-day Peru and Bolivia.
If the varieties selected for next month’s experiment don’t adapt to the desert soil, the researchers will introduce nutrients and subject them to radiation. “If that doesn’t work,” researchers said, “we’ll administer a new method the CIP is using called aeroponics.”
The technique, used for cultivating plants without soil, would expose roots inside a sphere or cube that is sprayed with nutrients and contains a system for removing toxins.
In future years, NASA plans to build a Mars research center in the Peruvian desert. The idea is to create an almost perfect replica of the Martian landscape and atmosphere for future research into space farming.
Author: Aquiles Páez (@Aquiles_CFQ)
Las opiniones vertidas por el autor son enteramente suyas y no siempre representan la opinión de GMV
The author’s views are entirely his own and may not reflect the views of GMV