Heinz can now make ketchup on Mars—in theory, at least. On Monday (Nov. 9), the food company unveiled a ketchup made of tomatoes grown in the kind of soil you’d find on Mars.
The experiment was conceptualized by Heinz “tomato masters“—seven experts on ketchup tomatoes—two years ago. A team of 14 astrobiologists worked for nine months at a lab called “The RedHouse” at the Aldrin Space Institute, Florida Tech, growing tomatoes in a simulated environment, with temperatures and water conditions similar to the red planet.
“Before now, most efforts around discovering ways to grow in Martian-simulated conditions are short term plant growth studies,” said Andrew Palmer, team leader at the Aldrin Space Institute. “What this project has done is look at long-term food harvesting.”
The tomatoes had the “exacting qualities that pass the rigorous quality and taste standards to become its iconic ketchup,” the company’s press release claimed. Ultimately, the aim is to figure out a reliable system of agriculture on our neighboring planet.
In the 2015 blockbuster film The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney was able to grow potatoes by fertilizing the Martian soil with feces. But it’s not quite that straightforward.
Mars is not nearly as habitable as Earth. It’s 50°C colder on average and the air is mostly carbon dioxide. The sunlight’s intensity is less than half of Earth’s, and the gravitation pull is a third. Moreover, the arid soil not only lacks nutrients, it is also laced with nasty chemicals called perchlorates, which would have to be chemically removed for plants to grow there, according to Paul Sokoloff, a botanist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, who was on Crew 143 of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah—the largest and longest running Mars simulator on Earth.
But scientists have found that artificial light sources, coupled with fertilizing the soil and leeching out the toxins, can make for a fertile environment. In fact, some shorter studies have already seen success growing quinoa, pees, rocket, barley, onions, and more on Martian soil in a few months. Apparently, the kale even tastes better. A 2014 study showed that tomatoes, wheat, cress, and mustard leaves grew particularly well—even flowering and producing seeds—in simulated Martian soil for 50 days, without any fertilizers.
Since the recent discovery of liquid water on Mars, food production is seeming even more viable.
Cargo deliveries happen routinely but the current International Space Station (ISS) food systems are only designed for missions lasting 12 months. A human mission to Mars will take two to three years, leaving astronauts dependent on freeze-dried food alone.
From red romaine lettuce to chile peppers, NASA has already been growing crops in space to provide astronauts with fresh, nutritious produce on longer journeys. Growing produce on Mars itself will give them another food source, and leave an agricultural system behind for the next mission, reducing future loads for those journeying from Earth.
While NASA is aiming for human crews to visit the red planet for brief periods, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk want to colonize the planet. For that, long-term farming plans become all the more important.
Sticking to Martian conditions is key since greenhouses likely won’t survive. Plus, changing Mars’ atmosphere will demand hundreds of years of seeding its soil with oxygen-producing cyanobacteria, lichens, and microbes—and all that effort could still amount to nothing, as Mars lacks a magnetosphere (a magnetic field to shield the planet from solar radiation).
The Heinz Marz edition bottles won’t be lining grocery store shelves; they’re not for sale. But you can watch the research team and former NASA astronaut and ketchup aficionado Mike Massimino taste the final product on Nov. 10 at 10am US eastern time on Twitter and Instagram.