Tech UPTechnologyWill we eat potatoes on Mars?

Will we eat potatoes on Mars?


One of the main problems of a manned trip to Mars is feeding the astronauts. Obviously, it is unthinkable to carry all the food necessary to feed the crew. The calculation is simple: astronauts on the ISS eat between 2,500 and 3,000 calories spread over 3-4 meals . The menus, which are designed to compensate for calcium loss and other deficiencies that arise in microgravity conditions, include 15% protein, 30% fat and 50% carbohydrates (the rest is liquid: water, coffee, juices. ..). We should expect travelers to Mars to eat similarly, so we can already see what the main problem facing space agencies is: storage. On the International Space Station (ISS) the complete diet of an astronaut should not exceed two kilos of food per day , so for an expedition to the red planet with only four crew members that means more than 7 tons of weight in food alone.

NASA is clear about it and left it in writing in the 2015 document Journey to Mars , which details the steps it will take to launch the manned mission: “We are on our way to get there, land there and live there.” This means that it is necessary to study what is needed for astronauts to do what our grandparents called ‘living off the land’ on Mars, and that is why scientists are considering sending small greenhouses to the Moon , to study the effects of low gravity -the Moon is one sixth that of Earth- in the development of plants, and obtaining varieties that are resistant to drought, frost and low atmospheric pressure. Because make no mistake, the first occupants of the Martian base will be, more than astronauts, farmers .

Or we cultivate we will not go to Mars

“In order to be efficient, people need to find a way to grow food on Mars,” says Bruce Bugbee, a botanist at Utah State University who has collaborated with NASA for 30 years to develop plant growth systems on shuttles. space and the ISS. “ If we are not able to achieve it, we will not be able to live on the red planet ”, he adds. So we need to develop a new agricultural technology that enables long-duration missions in space.

In 2017, NASA launched CUBES (Center for Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space), a five-year, $15 million project led by Adam Arkin, professor of bioengineering at the University of California at Berkeley, whose goals include biofabrication of fuel, materials, pharmaceuticals, and food in Mars-like conditions to minimize resupply needs. And it’s not easy.

Earth’s soil is a complex mixture of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids, and countless organisms of all sizes. By contrast, the Martian soil is little more than crumbled volcanic rock . But the main problem with this soil is not the lack of nutrients, but rather that it contains perchlorates, which are lethal to humans but which “allow the water to remain liquid at temperatures between 50 and 70 degrees below zero,” explains María-Paz. Zorzano of the Center for Astrobiology. The only viable way to eliminate them is to develop plants capable of processing them to clean the Martian soil or “to obtain plants that do not absorb perchlorates,” adds Bugbee.

One can take plants to Mars, but insects? At first glance it may seem all nonsense, but there are many parts of plants that are inedible to humans and delicious to insects . And best of all, they can turn much of this inedible material into something very useful, fertilizer. In addition, and this is the most fun, we will be able to farm insects. Different studies have shown that the Acheta domesticus , the domestic cricket, if it is raised at 30º C and fed with the same care as other vertebrates, its conversion into food is twice as efficient as pigs and chickens, four times times more than sheep and lambs and 20 times more than veal. Taking into account that it has a high reproductive rate and a high content of essential amino acids, it is not something that we should discard to feed future Martian colonists.

the martian potato

And we come to the protagonist of the movie Mars , the potato. Domesticated about 3,800 years ago on the shores of Lake Titicaca, it arrived in Europe 500 years ago and is currently the fourth most important crop in the world. Now it is only necessary to take this tubercle to the red planet. Interestingly, this idea did not occur to an astrobiologist, or even a scientist. It was born in the mind of Will Rust, creative director of the Memac Ogilvy advertising agency in Dubai. He proposed that the best way to draw attention to the need to produce potato species resistant to the harshest environmental conditions and thus combat world hunger was to take it to Mars. And in Peru they picked up the baton; Not in vain do they have the largest number of potato varieties on the planet, close to 5,000. “We want to prove that we have potato species that can survive in places as arid and as hostile as Mars,” explains Julio Valdivia-Silva, director of Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) of Lima. In this way, in 2016 the Potatoes on Mars project was born.

Scientists from the Lima-based International Potato Center (CIP) selected 65 species: 41 for being highly resistant to viruses and 24 for being native to the Andes. What interested the Peruvian researchers was whether they would germinate in soil similar to Mars. Luckily, they had samples accessible just around the corner, in the pampas of La Joya, in Arequipa, southern Peru. “These are the most Mars-like soils we’ve found on Earth,” says NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay. “We brought about 300 kilos of that soil to see if any of the chosen varieties grew,” adds Valdivia. We tried three different ways of growing potatoes and only one worked ”, comments David Ramírez, the person in charge of the project at CIP. “We put the plants in vitro, in capsules of organic matter, inside peat tablets, and then we planted them in pots with the soil brought from La Joya.” “To everyone’s surprise – comments Valdivia – three of them proved to be strong enough”.

The next step was to germinate them in environmental conditions as close to Martian conditions as possible . For this, the CubeSat was created , a hermetic system that recreates the soil and atmosphere of the red planet and was built by UTEC students under the direction of Valdivia: “when we presented the results at international conferences, no one believed that we could have built this martian simulator with only 3,000 dollars. In another place, at least half a million would have been spent,” the Peruvian researcher proudly comments. And the potatoes germinated: “I thought nothing was going to grow, but I was amazed when I saw it,” says Ramírez.

Obviously, these ‘super potatoes’ capable of withstanding extreme conditions will not fly to Mars, but they lead the way. Now it is the turn of biotechnology: to develop the variety capable of growing on Mars… and that is edible.

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