Designing a sustainable agricultural system for astronauts will be one of the biggest challenges facing space colonists. But there are several ways we can grow food for our future colonies through the use of innovative methods of farming and a focus on climate control, light, and water availability.
The cost of sending a pound (453 grams) of anything just to low Earth orbit is estimated at $10,000 today, but NASA wants to lower the cost to just a few hundred over the next 25 years.
Growing plants in space
Mankind is constantly developing and colonization of other planets is undisputed, but without nutrient-rich soil, you don’t have many alternatives. Currently, the best way to grow plants in space or on other planets is to grow them hydroponically.
In space, hydroponics can be used to grow food, which may be necessary if we ever colonize other planets and have to provide our own food sources. The first step is to create a controlled environment within which to grow plants.
The next step is building a hydroponic system that will allow plants to grow without soil. This can be done by using a system that provides nutrients and water directly to the roots of the plant, or via an overhead system where plants are suspended above their nutrient solution.
The next step is building a hydroponic system that will allow plants to grow without soil. This can be done by using a system that provides nutrients and water directly to the roots of the plant, or via an overhead system where plants are suspended above their nutrient solution, which already happened, and you can read about it down below.
Veggie is a plant-growing system, and its purpose is to add fresh plants to astronauts’ diets while they are on the International Space Station or even anywhere in space.
VEG-01 A contains one set of six plant pillows planted with red lettuce seeds. Veggie utilizes passive wicking to supply water and nutrients to the plants as they grow. The roots are suspended in the water and feed on nutrients that are added to the water. The plant also gets oxygen from air bubbles in the water.
The first lettuce crop was started on 8 May 2014 by astronaut Steve Swanson, and it grew for 33 days. Only 3 of the initial 6 crops survived, but they were healthy enough to be frozen and sent back to Earth for examination. NASA says the results were good, with the plants being even cleaner than those bought at grocery stores.
For decades, NASA has experimented with growing plants in space but always the results have been sent back to Earth for testing. Finally, in 2015, astronauts on the International Space Station had red romaine lettuce on the menu, as crew mate Scot Kelly tweeted, “But first, lettuce take a #selfie”.
The Advance Plant Habitat
The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), like Veggie, is a plant growth chamber developed by NASA that lets astronauts grow and eat fresh produce on the International Space Station. It allows astronauts to grow plants in space similar to the way they would on Earth.
The Advance Plant Habitat was built using technology from Veggie that allows it to control light levels and nutrition on demand, but with more independence than Veggie. The APH uses red, blue, and green LED lights and wide spectrum white LED lights. This complex system also has more than 180 sensors that send real-time data back to Earth, measuring temperature, oxygen, and moisture content at several points in the chamber. cameras
NASA is currently developing new methods and technologies to supply fresh food for astronauts on longer journeys, as well as ways to bring crops back home. By 2025, NASA plans to grow vegetables in a specialized greenhouse aboard the International Space Station (ISS), with the goal of eventually on a deep-space mission.
“We can build all the rockets we want to go to Mars, but it won’t work unless we have food to eat,” Jacob Torres, a horticultural scientist at NASA.
Choosing the right food to grow
Plants should be chosen that can tolerate a harsher living environment and survive in space conditions.
So far, tests of crop growth in the Advanced Plant Habitat on board the International Space Station have been successful.
The most popular plants grown here include rice, sunflowers, red romaine lettuce, cabbage, onions, dwarf wheat, potatoes, peas, garlic, and to the surprise of many, even flowers such as tulips and Zinnia hybrida.
Recently, NASA chose to grow the first fruit on the ISS in the now fully automated Advanced Plant Habitat, and that is Española chili peppers. After two years of research, these were chosen from a multitude of chili peppers because they have a short growing time, are easily pollinated, and grow at high altitudes.
“The astronauts have often expressed a desire for more spicy and flavourful foods, and so having a bit of hot flavour also seemed to be a good thing. Plus, many peppers are very high in vitamin C, which is important for space diets,” NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler said.
“We were looking for varieties that don’t grow too tall, and yet are very productive in the controlled environments that we would be using in space.”
Growing food on the surface of the Moon or Mars?
Part of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, Chang’e 4, a robotic spacecraft, landed on the Moon in 2019, carrying with it a 3 kg (6.61 lb) sealed “biosphere” with numerous seeds and insect eggs. This is a part of a test to see whether plants and insects can hatch and grow together in synergy.
The sealed packet contained seeds of potatoes, tomatoes, and A.Thaliana, a flowering plant, which became the first plants ever to grow on the Moon. Tests of plant growth in space had been done before this experiment, but the sealed package also contained silkworm eggs.
Researchers hope that plants and larvae will live in synergy inside the container sent to the Moon.
Why grow in space?
Astronauts are on long-duration missions and receive food parcels along with fresh food delivered on regular resupply missions. NASA is trying to reduce the cost of delivering everything, but most importantly, trying to grow our own plants wherever we are is an advantage.
Growing plants on the surface of the Moon and Mars is a significant challenge for mankind at the moment, it seems to be evolving at a fast pace. Who knows? In the near future, we may have our own colonies on the Moon or on planets like Mars or even further away.
At worst, all these experiments to grow plants in space will help us if the Earth is hit by an asteroid. But that’s unlikely and hopefully, we’ll only see it in the movies.