Astronauts these days get to enjoy delicious space lettuce and a morning espresso, perks that are definitely going to make Elon Musk’s Martian colonists super jealous. So, to throw eventual Red Planet inhabitants a bone, NASA is undertaking a study to figure out how to grow potatoes à la Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, though presumably without the exploding airlock and probably on a much tighter budget.
Researchers can’t just blast potatoes 140 million miles over to our neighbor planet, so instead they tell The Wall Street Journal they’ve gathered up 65 varieties known for their hardiness on Earth. Money will be on the ones that can grow best in soil from a Peruvian desert that receives one millimeter of water per year; these winners (or survivors, more like) will enter round two, where they’ll be put in a simulator that mimics the atmosphere. Mars has water, but the atmosphere there is between -84 and -284 degrees, contains high levels of radiation, and is 96 percent carbon dioxide. These conditions have led one researcher to predict, “I don’t think they’ll grow in the open air”; he says under some sort of biodome is more likely.
The team’s theory is that maybe ten of the test-group potatoes will yield decent-size tubers in the end, but they also warn exposure to severe drought and temperature extremes “could change” their flavor. Specifically: It may make them “so bitter they are inedible.” In other words, Martians are going to be expecting constant resupplies of ketchup.