Can You Grow Potatoes on Mars?

Written by Alanna Burns, Illustration by Jaclyn Simon

If you have read or have watched The Martian, you may remember how the protagonist, Mark Watney, grew potatoes on Mars by mixing martian soil with freeze-dried poop. Sure, it’s a fun bit of fiction and given that Watney is a botanist, a great way to try and feed himself while he’s stranded on Mars. I have often wondered, would that even be possible? Could you grow potatoes on Mars? 

I am fascinated by space exploration and the many different ways we’ve advanced as a species. We’re not about to be visited by Vulcans anytime soon (Trekkies will know) but we’ve come a long way since those early space faring missions. You know what’s also cool? Botany. Botany has also come a long way and botanists continue to discover ways to help us survive on Earth. Botanists are an incredibly important part of our fight against climate change and its effects on our plant life and biodiversity. Without plants, we would simply not be able to survive. 

Let’s go back to Mars potatoes. Could it be done?  I am by no means important enough to reach out to a scientist at NASA to answer that question for me, so I had to settle for the good old Internet to satisfy my curiosity. I found some interesting bits of information that mostly answered my question. 

Short answer, no, you most likely wouldn’t be able to grow potatoes on Mars like Mark Watney (bummer). There are so many factors involved, microbes, soil etc. that to get a yield like he did (a very good first crop indeed) would be an incredible feat. Gotta love fiction! But some of what he did was fairly accurate in its science. Regolith, aka Martian soil, the stuff Watney used to grow his potatoes in, is actually quite low in key plant nutrients. It’s also pretty terrible at absorbing water and is often contaminated with heavy metals or toxic compounds. Not the best environment for growing plants. 

It’s not all fiction though. Scientists are hard at work trying to find ways to successfully grow plants in space. Environments are created on Earth to mimic atmospheric conditions you would find on the moon or Mars and then once the plants have grown, they are studied by scientists at length to learn as much as possible about growing plants in space. 

Why should we care about being able to grow plants in space? If humans want to continue to explore space and even one day inhabit places like the moon or Mars, it’s important that we have a sustainable source of food. So while The Martian is fiction – it could very well be a reality in the future. Over at NASA, they’ve created the Vegetable Production System, also known as Veggie. Veggie is a space garden that currently resides on the International Space Station (ISS) and it allows astronauts to study plant growth in microgravity. The plants grown are also consumed by the astronauts, adding valuable nutrients to their diets. To combat the effects of space on the plants itself, each plant grows in a “pillow” in the garden, which is described by NASA as being the size of a piece of carry-on luggage. The “pillow” is filled with a clay-based growth media and fertilizer, and aids in the distribution of water, nutrients and air around the root system. Neat!

Another system, called the Advanced Plant Habitat, or APH, is also used on the ISS but it is used solely for plant research and is completely enclosed and automated, being controlled by a team back on Earth. Both systems, Veggie and APH, use LED lights to grow the plants to great success. These LED lights are designed to mimic natural sunlight, an important part of growing plants, but lacking in a space environment. When the plants are fully grown and ready for harvest, the crew aboard the space station collects the samples and sends them back to Earth for the team to study further. Scientists want to know how space affects their growth and development, with a specific focus on what changes happen at the gene, protein, and metabolite levels and why these changes occur. 

There have been so many advances in the study of plants in space over the years, which makes it feel like we’re moving out of the world of fiction and into reality. Plants are important on Earth, but can also have a big role in space exploration. All of the studies being completed by NASA and its scientists are designed to help us understand how space affects plants and how we can eventually grow them in space like Mark Watney. 

Science is cool.