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Back in April, a German greenhouse produced its first crops: eight pounds of salad greens, 18 cucumbers, and 70 radishes. What makes that remarkable is that the greenhouse is in Antarctica. And it’s designed in part to help scientists learn how to grow produce on the planet Mars.
Martian colonists will need to live off the land -- it’s just too expensive to ship everything from Earth. They’ll probably use underground deposits of ice for drinking water, oxygen, and rocket fuel. And they’ll need to grow crops using the Martian soil.
That won’t be easy, though. The powdery Martian dirt contains compounds that are toxic to many plants. So colonists will have to process the dirt, or dig deep to find deposits that are friendlier to life.
As in the movie “The Martian,” one crop they’re likely to grow is potatoes. Here on Earth, they’re grown in all kinds of environments, from tropical to arctic, and at elevations from sea level to more than two miles high. Potatoes are highly productive, too -- you can grow a lot of them with little water and land. And they’re highly nutritious.
Scientists in Peru recently grew potatoes in soil from the Pampas de la Joya Desert, which resembles Martian dirt. But only about 40 percent of the varieties they planted survived, and those that did make it were scrawny.
For now, look for Mars low in the southeast as night falls. It looks like a brilliant orange star, outshining all but the Moon and the planet Venus.