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NASA Really Is Trying to Grow Potatoes on Mars

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Scientists cooking up test with potato pros in Peru; 65 varieties, red desert dirt

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NASA says the Pampas de La Joya Desert in southern Peru has soil conditions like Mars. PHOTO: RYAN DUBE/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

 

 

 

 

PAMPAS DE LA JOYA, Peru—As humans prepare to blast off to Mars, there is still the question of what they’ll eat once they colonize the red planet. Scientists who have traveled here to the Peruvian desert say they have the answer. Potatoes.

Researchers at the Lima-based International Potato Center and scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration are studying which type of potato could be best suited for extraterrestrial farming to support a human settlement on Mars. If everything goes as planned, the Martian colonies could be munching on french fries, chips and mashed potatoes one day.

“It’s got to be a Martian potato that tastes good,” Julio Valdivia-Silva,a Peruvian astrobiologist with NASA, said while surveying the reddish-brown desert on a trip to collect soil. “It’s a big challenge to take a living organism somewhere else. We’ve never done this before.”

The idea is literally science fiction, included in the Hollywood blockbuster “The Martian,” where Matt Damon played a stranded astronaut and botanist who plants potatoes to survive on Mars. It’s also not so far-fetched.

Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit foundation, plans to send individuals to the planet in about 10 years on a one-way trip to establish a permanent colony. Inventor Elon Musk says his spacecraft company, SpaceX, also hopes to send humans within a decade but warned during a startup conference in Hong Kong in January that it would be “hard and dangerous and difficult in every way you can imagine.”

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Peruvian potatoes

NASA, which landed the Curiosity rover on Mars in 2012 and found last year that water flows there, has recently announced plans to land astronauts.

That will be when the potato comes in handy.

“When humans go to Mars, they will want to grow things. They’ll need food,” said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and participant in the potato study. “I think we’ll be able to find varieties of potatoes that will grow at cold and low-pressure conditions. That would be interesting to know for Mars applications.”

The potato is a major global crop thanks to its ability to adapt to a variety of climates and its abundance of carbohydrates, as well as protein, vitamin C, iron and zinc. Peru, birthplace of the humble tuber, is home to over 4,500 varieties, more than anywhere else, according to the International Potato Center. Potatoes here also have another advantage: They’re not just for eating.

Reddish, purple and yellow spuds are used as dyes. Potatoes can be used as a battery. In Peru’s rural highlands, a lumpy potato called “the weeping bride” is given by the groom’s mother to the bride-to-be to test how good a wife she will be (it all depends on how neatly she peels the hard-to-peel spud).BN-NN139_0412ma_P_20160412135413.jpg

In ‘The Martian,’ Matt Damon played a stranded astronaut trying to grow potatoes on Mars. PHOTO: 20THCENTFOX/EVERETT COLLECTION

Peru is good for the experiment because of the Pampas de La Joya Desert, one of the driest spots on Earth, which receives about a millimeter of precipitation a year. It is part of South America’s vast Atacama Desert that has long been studied by NASA for its Mars-like conditions, in particular its dirt.

For the potato study, scientists selected 65 varieties of spuds known to be the most resilient.

The first step will be to plant the tubers in over 1,300 pounds of soil transported from this desert to Lima. If they grow successfully, the potatoes will then be planted in a simulator that factors in the atmospheric conditions on Mars.

Walter Amoros, a Peruvian scientist at the International Potato Center, said he thinks half of the potatoes will grow in the desert soil, but only about 10 will yield a good-sized tuber. The flavor could change under the stress, he warned, which is common on Earth when potatoes are exposed to severe drought and high temperatures. That sometimes makes them so bitter they are inedible.

On Mars, the temperature averages minus 84 degrees Fahrenheit, with lows of minus 284 degrees, according to NASA. It has high levels of radiation and over 60% less gravity than Earth. Its atmosphere has 96% carbon dioxide, with only a tiny amount of oxygen. Then there are the dust storms and salty water.BN-NN136_0412ma_M_20160412135412.jpg

BN-NN137_0412ma_M_20160412135411.jpg

Mars and Peru. The landscape is very similar.PHOTOS: NASA, RYAN DUBE/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL;

 

The potatoes “are going to pass through an acid test. I’ve done tests under stressful conditions, but never so stressful,” Mr. Amoros said. “I don’t think they’ll grow in the open air [on Mars]. They will have to plant them under controlled conditions, in domes.”

Early space travelers relied on paste-like food squeezed from aluminum tubes. Today, astronauts have a more appetizing menu: chicken, beef and even salmon jerky. Salt and pepper are provided in liquid form, to prevent them from floating away. There is coffee, orange juice and lemonade, consumed through straws.

NASA’s plant studies are currently focused on leafy greens like lettuce, which has been grown in small plant chambers on the international space station. They also plan to study Chinese cabbage and dwarf tomatoes. While less nutritious than potatoes, researchers hope the greens will be able to complement astronauts’ diet during space flights.

Scientists say growing food—should humans colonize Mars—would reduce costs and mitigate risks of transporting food by shuttle.

“If something goes wrong, if you can produce some of your own food in situ, then you have that as a means to sustain yourself,” saidRaymond Wheeler, a plant physiologist at NASA.

Until cultivating begins, scientists foresee transporting potatoes to Mars in refrigerated tubes. They could be planted by machines in a controlled environment before humans arrive. If Martian soil proves to be too hostile, there are options of growing them without soil by hydroponics and aeroponics, which deliver nutrients in water and air, respectively.

They will still need fertilizer, which scientists say could be resolved on Mars by recycling nutrients from urine and inedible plant parts.

“This will be important for achieving sustainable-type systems,” Mr. Wheeler said, “regardless of the approach.”

Abel Yapo, a student volunteer who helped dig up the desert soil, said he hopes one day to eat potatoes on Mars. “It would be a dream,” he said. “With my potatoes from the results we get here.”

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/nasa-really-is-trying-to-grow-potatoes-on-mars-1460560325

 

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      If observations reveal oxygen in a planet’s atmosphere, that could point to photosynthesis of plants — although not conclusively. But oxygen together with methane, ozone and carbon dioxide, particularly in certain proportions, “would tell us that there is life with 99 percent confidence,” Dr. Gillon said.
      Astronomers expect that a few decades of technological advances are needed before similar observations can be made of Earthlike planets around larger, brighter sunlike stars.
      Dr. Triaud said that if there is life around Trappist-1, “then it’s good we didn’t wait too long.”
      “If there isn’t, then we have learned something quite deep about where life can emerge,” he continued.
      The discovery might also mean that scientists who have been searching for radio signals from alien civilizations might also have been searching in the wrong places if most habitable planets orbit dwarfs, which live far longer than larger stars like the sun.
      The SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., is using the Allen Telescope Array, a group of 42 radio dishes in California, to scrutinize 20,000 red dwarfs. “This result is kind of a justification for that project,” said Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the institute.
      “If you’re looking for complex biology — intelligent aliens that might take a long time to evolve from pond scum — older could be better,” Dr. Shostak said. “It seems a good bet that the majority of clever beings populating the universe look up to see a dim, reddish sun hanging in their sky. And at least they wouldn’t have to worry about sun block.”
      Correction: February 22, 2017 
      An earlier version of this article named the wrong telescope that is trained on the Trappist-1 dwarf star. It is the Spitzer Space Telescope, not the Kepler. The article also misstated how many days it takes for the planet farthest from Trappist-1 to orbit the star. It is about 20 days, not 12.35.
      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/22/science/trappist-1-exoplanets-nasa.html?_r=0
    • By JAMMY
      http://nypost.com/2016/09/27/elon-musk-to-reveal-how-he-plans-to-colonize-mars/
       
    • Guest Nicole
      By Guest Nicole
      ‘This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our solar system,’ says a leading investigator 

       
      An artist's conception of Juno - who has three Lego "passengers" on board - approaching Jupiter's swirling gaseous clouds Nasa/JPL-Caltech
      Juno, the spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter, orbited closer to the giant planet than any man-made object before it, in a record-breaking approach on Saturday.
      The Nasa creation, which was launched five years ago, made the close approach to Jupiter by soaring around 2,600 miles above the planet.
      As it cruised by at a speed of 130,000 mph, Juno was expected to capture astonishing images and plenty of scientific data, say mission controllers at Nasa.
      The probe was said to have reached its closest point at 1.51pm – following the spacecraft’s dizzying flight path which involved escaping Earth’s orbit and moving into Jupiter’s.
      Scott Bolton, a principle investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio in Texas, said Juno would have its whole suite of nine instruments activated as it soars above Jupiter’s swirling cloud tops. The instruments had previously been switched off so as to survive the entry into the planet’s dangerous radiation belts.
      "This is the first time we will be close to Jupiter since we entered orbit on 4 July. Back then we turned all our instruments off to focus on the rocket burn to get Juno into orbit around Jupiter," said Dr Bolton.
      "Since then, we have checked Juno from stem to stern and back again. We still have more testing to do, but we are confident that everything is working great, so for this upcoming flyby Juno’s eyes and ears, our science instruments, will all be open.
      "This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our solar system and begin to figure out how he works."
      Nasa space agents have said they hope to release some of the first detailed pictures of Jupiter's north and south poles. It could take some days for the images to be downloaded on Earth.
      Scientists are also anticipating a wealth of data about Jupiter's composition, gravity, magnetic field, and the source of its 384 mph winds.
      A British team from the University of Leicester are playing a key role in the mission by focusing on the planet’s magnetic field, its auroras and atmosphere.
      There are also some "passengers" onboard the spacecraft, which is powered by three enormous solar panels. These are titanium-built Lego figures of 17th century astronomer Galileo Galilei, the Roman goddess Juno and her husband the Roman god Jupiter.

      Scientists celebrate in Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the solar-powered Juno spacecraft goes into orbit around Jupiter (AP
      It took five years to complete the 1.8 billion-mile journey from Earth, including a trek through circuit-frazzling radiation that requires its flight computer to be armoured in a titanium vault weighing almost 400 lb.
      At the end of its 20-month mission, Juno will self-destruct by plunging into Jupiter’s dense atmosphere.
      The craft is part of Nasa’s New Frontiers programme of robotic space missions which last year saw the New Horizons craft obtain close-up views of dwarf planet Pluto.
      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/juno-mission-jupiter-nasa-spacecraft-record-breaking-approach-space-a7212641.html
    • Guest Nicole
    • By SciTechPress
      Elon Musk wants to do so. I'm wondering if we should or not?
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