MELBOURNE, FLA. — Remember those potatoes Matt Damon’s character in The Martian worked so hard to grow while trying to survive on Mars? A Florida Tech astrobiologist, in concert with a global food company, has developed the perfect accompaniment.
Say hello to Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Marz Edition.
The end result of a two-year collaboration with Heinz (thus the “z” in Mars) and associate professor of biological sciences Andrew Palmer at Florida Tech’s Aldrin Space Institute, this unique prototype condiment is more than a novelty. With one paper submitted for peer review and others to come, it represents the results of one of the largest and longest explorations of the challenges and opportunities for food production on the Red Planet – and closer to home.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is how to grow in less ideal soil conditions, and this project could help us discover ways to tackle this issue,” said Gary King, head of agriculture at Kraft Heinz.
Palmer and a team of more than a dozen students, scientists and technicians worked in a greenhouse, known as the Red House, installed at the university’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Innovative Design in Palm Bay. Red House was designed to replicate conditions humans would face when farming on Mars, starting with powerful LED lighting – the only light the tomato plants ever experienced – and utilizing about 7,800 pounds of analog Martian regolith – soil from the Mohave Desert that mimics many of the characteristics of actual Martian soil. There was also strict temperature control and regular irrigation.
The team spent over 2,000 hours first on a 30-plant pilot study, and then the larger effort involving about 450 tomato plants in individual buckets, working closely with Heinz the entire way.
“We started the experiment by analyzing the soil from Martian conditions, and from there we were able to shortlist our vast Heinz seed catalog to four potential options that may succeed. Two of these did, so we were able to create a larger crop to create our thriving ketchup tomatoes,” King said. “Working with the Aldrin Space Institute put our 100 years of growing expertise with the best minds in science to advance our ability to grow in very poor and completely different soil conditions on other planets – and learn a thing or two about our own.”
Palmer said the project was instructive in part because of its duration.
“What this project has done is look at long-term harvesting of food. Achieving a crop that is of a quality to become Heinz Tomato Ketchup was the dream result and we achieved it,” he said. “Working with the Tomato Masters at Heinz has allowed us to see what the possibilities are for long-term food production beyond Earth. There is much we can learn by working with one of the biggest food companies worldwide.”
Though the project yielded hundreds of tomatoes, the expanded program, unlike the smaller pilot effort, produced fewer tomatoes than expected, Palmer said, a sign of the challenges of getting the light, temperature and irrigation just right in larger growing spaces.
And the results indicate the potential benefits of growing multiple types of vegetables and fruit in a trough system, not a single product in individual containers. This would help by allowing the production of a better variety of “microbial partners” in the regolith, Palmer said, and for the various plants to intermingle and help reduce the spread of disease.
“This process is pretty much in its infancy. And I think when we see things like The Martian, that has influenced a lot of people’s opinions of what we could do on Mars. But that is not a documentary,” Palmer said. “The reality is that I firmly believe we can do this. I think we can grow in regolith on Mars. It’s just a matter of figuring out all the limitations.
“Does this study tell me that the process is more difficult? Yes. It’s going to be more even more challenging than I already thought,” Palmer continued, “But that’s not a reason to think we can’t accomplish it.”
The project not only succeeded in growing tomatoes, but the experiment also allowed Heinz to create a limited run of prototype bottles of Heinz Tomato Ketchup, Marz Edition at its research facility in California. The Martian ketchup was unveiled this week, when a limited-edition bottle embarked on a spaceflight beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, reaching nearly 23 miles into the sky and surviving temperatures of about minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit before returning to Earth.
As this project is in its experimental phase, the Marz Edition Ketchup will only be tasted by a very lucky few internally at Heinz.