How Astronauts Might be Able to Grow Martian Potatoes with NASA Lighting Technology

Actor Matt Damon plays NASA astronaut Marc Watney in "The Martian."  (Photo courtesy of Giles Keyte/NASA)

Stranded on the barren red planet Mars with few supplies available, astronaut Mark Watney played by Hollywood actor Matt Damon in The Martian is fighting for survival against harsh natural elements.

In a scene from "The Martian," astronaut Mark Watney employs some ingenious methods to plant crops on Mars. (Photo courtesy of Peter Mountain/NASA)

To sustain himself, Damon’s character attempts to cultivate potatoes by cutting up potatoes into smaller chunks, and hiking up the temperature in his survival pod Hab to create a suitable environment for potato growth. The next challenge is creating water to irrigate the potatoes (probably would have been less work if he had known there was water on the planet in the first place). 

That is all about the movie plot that LEDinside will reveal for the time being. The movie was shot before NASA made the ground breaking announcement that they found chemical traces of liquid water on Mars earlier this week. 

Before watching the Matt Damon- Ridley Scott movie in theaters, LEDinside will explore the plant growth environments astronauts are exposed to in space.

Mark Watney played by Matt Damon in Hollywood movie The Martian stoops down to check the potatoe crops in a movie scene. (Photo Courtesy of 20th Century Fox via The Martian official website)

Without fertile earth, large quantity of water to irrigate plants, or sunlight in space, most plant growth has be done indoors or even on spacecrafts’ hydroponically. NASA astronauts on the International Space Station announced successfully harvesting red romaine lettuce in space on August 2015. The LED grow light system, Veggie, developed by Orbital Technologies helped scientists grow veggies in zero gravity conditions.

The plant grow light system Veggie was jointly developed by a group of scientists. The purple and nearly magenta colors emitted from the grow lights are necessary to stimulate plant growth. Blue and red are the only colors needed to grow plants, but green was added to the lighting color for human perception purposes to neutralize the purple light, and make the plant appear edible.

Real-life NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren harvests lettuce grown from the Veggie experiment while on board the International Space Station. (Photo courtesy of Peter Mountain/NASA)

"Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plant growth," said Dr. Ray Wheeler, lead for Advanced Life Support activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Office at Kennedy. "They are probably the most efficient in terms of electrical power conversion. The green LEDs help to enhance the human visual perception of the plants, but they don't put out as much light as the reds and blues."

NASA also explained the “real” challenge for human survival on Mars. The first step is keeping warm. Temperatures on Mars average -80C° well below freezing point. Even with sufficient insulation equipment and ideal temperatures on Mars, people eventually need to eat. One of the greatest challenges the protagonist faced in the movie was rationing his food supply.

On resource scarce Mars, water and oxygen also have to be used resourcefully. Compared to traditional agricultural methods on “Earth” where water irrigation is commonly used to grow plants, NASA is researching precise irrigation methods to help astronauts optimize plant harvests in the future.

Astronauts on the International Space Station are ready to sample their harvest of a crop of "Outredgeous" red romaine lettuce from the Veggie plant growth system that tests hardware for growing vegetables and other plants in space. (NASA/LEDinside)

The space agency funded researcher at BioServe Space Technologies, a nonprofit- the University of Colorado-Boulder, in 2000 to study the relationship between water content and leaf rigidity, and investigate whether the data could be monitored by sensors.

In the early 2000s, a NASA-funded researcher at BioServe Space Technologies, a nonprofit, NASA-sponsored research center located at the University of Colorado-Boulder looked at possible relationship between water content and leaf rigidity and whether the data relating to that relationship can be monitored by sensors.

By measuring electrical pulses, AgriHouse’s sensors can determine several characteristics important to plant health. The sensors can remain attached through wind and rain while leaving the plant unharmed. (Photo Courtesy of AgriHouse Brands)

The concept was later commercialized by AgriHouse Brands, which developed sensors for leafs to directly measure water content. The system relays information to farmers’ computers, and sends text alerts to farmers about crops that require watering.

Whereas traditional irrigation methods typically water plants more often than is needed, precision agriculture, enabled by the leaf sensor, saves water and also the precious commodities of time and money.

Fortunately for Mark Watney in the film, who happens to be a botanist, he is very familiar with these new technologies. All that is required is careful management of his potato farm for astronauts to reach Mars.

For more info about for the real NASA technologies that appear in The Martian, please click here for more details.

A Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) is a key mode of transportation on the Red Planet in "The Martian."  (Photo courtesy of Giles Keyte/NASA)

For further reading:

(Author: Emma Chang, Editor, LEDinside; Additional Edits and Translation: Judy Lin, Chief Editor, LEDinside)

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