Good news for Matt Damon! Potatoes can grow on Mars

In the 2015 sci-fi movie The Martian, Matt Damon is abandoned on Mars and forced to farm his own food to sustain himself while Earth arranges a rescue. 

The concept might sound outlandish, but it turns out that growing potatoes on the Red Planet is more science fact than fiction. The International Potato Center has published research showing that tubers are able to grow under Mars' atmospheric conditions.

Hermetically sealed

In 2016, engineers at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima built a specially-constructed CubeSat that replicated Martian conditions. Temperature, air pressure, oxygen, CO2 and light levels are all controlled within a hermetically sealed container, monitored by sensors and live-streaming cameras.

At the centre of the container, a potato seed was planted in a soil similar to that found on Mars and fed with nutrient-rich water. Here's a timelapse video of what happened next:

Produce tubers

"It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we've bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil," said potato breeder Walter Amoros, who worked on the experiment. He found that the best-performing varieties were those adapted towards subtropical lowlands.

"Growing crops under Mars-like conditions is an important phase of this experiment," said Julio Valdivia-Silva, a research associate with the SETI Institute. "If the crops can tolerate the extreme conditions that we are exposing them to in our CubeSat, they have a good chance to grow on Mars."

"We will do several rounds of experiments to find out which potato varieties do best. We want to know what the minimum conditions are that a potato needs to survive."

Food security

What's more, the results could have positive implications for those of us remaining on Earth. "The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected by climate change, are working," said Amoros.

You can watch the potatoes growing in real time, if that sounds like a thing that you'd want to do, over on the International Potato Center's website.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.