Plants provide food, breathable air and psychological benefits. With plans materializing for a Deep Space Gateway, Lunar Village and the Mars community, there may be a lot more people living in the lower Earth orbit and microgravity environments, besides on the International Space Station. However, food production in space is still in its nascent stage. Existing prepackaged astronaut food is not a healthy option for long haul space missions. There is no way to regularly transport fresh fruit and vegetables. It is becoming increasingly evident that we must be able to successfully grow food in space.
Plant experiments done on ISS have presented various challenges, such as, years of preparation, little iteration and fewer conclusive results. Furthermore, ISS is limited in its genetic analysis capabilities and there are limited astronaut hours for dedicated biological analysis. Hence, for at least the next decade or more, most analysis of plants and seeds grown in space must be accomplished on Earth, which is not feasible.
Agile approaches by Orbital Genomics aims to adapt, develop and finally grow crops in space to solve the food production challenge in lower Earth orbit and planetary bodies of interest. Additionally benefit agriculture on Earth.
We also aim to enter the market as an “astroculture uber-service” for citizen scientists, farmers and agricultural companies, who would be provided with a platform for developing space adapted crops and gaining from space treated crops, to adapt in various challenging conditions on Earth, due to climate change and drought.
Commander Scott Kelly (Expedition 46) shared photographs of a blooming zinnia flower in the Veggie plant growth system aboard the International Space Station (16 January 2016). “Yes, there are other life forms in space! #SpaceFlower #YearInSpace”, Kelly wrote.
This flowering crop experiment began on Nov. 16, 2015, when NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren activated the Veggie system and its rooting “pillows” containing zinnia seeds. The Veggie provides lighting and nutrient delivery, but utilizes the cabin environment for temperaturecontrol and as a source of carbon dioxide to promote growth, according to NASA.
Growing zinnias provided an opportunity for scientists back on Earth to better understand how plants grow in microgravity, and for astronauts to practice doing what they’ll be tasked with on a deep space mission: autonomous gardening. In late December, Kelly found that the plants “weren’t looking too good,” and told the ground team, “You know, I think if we’re going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water. Kind of like in my backyard, I look at it and say ‘Oh, maybe I should water the grass today.’ I think this is how this should be handled.”
The Veggie team on Earth created what was dubbed “The Zinnia Care Guide for the On-Orbit Gardener,” and gave basic guidelines for care while putting judgment capabilities into the hands of the astronaut who had the plants right in front of him. The care guide was a one-page, streamlined resource to support Kelly as an autonomous gardener. Soon, the flowers were on the rebound, and on Jan. 12, pictures showed the first peeks of petals beginning to sprout on a few buds.”
A transparent plastic growth chamber bound for the International Space Station on the SpaceX-3 resupply mission may help expand in-orbit food production capabilities, and offer astronauts fresh produce.
NASA’s Veg-01 experiment will be used to study the in-orbit function and performance of a new expandable plant growth facility called Veggie. Veggie is a low-cost plant growth chamber that uses a flat-panel light bank that includes red, blue and green LEDs for plant growth and crew observation. Veggie’s unique design is collapsible for transport and storage and expandable up to a foot and a half as plants grow inside it. The roots and nutrients for the plant are contained in plant “pillows”. The investigation will focus on the growth and development of “Outredgeous” lettuce seedlings in the microgravity environment.
“Veggie will provide a new resource for U.S. astronauts and researchers as we begin to develop the capabilities of growing fresh produce and other large plants on the space station,” said Gioia Massa, NASA payload scientist for Veggie. “Determining food safety is one of our primary goals for this validation test.”
Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) in Madison, Wis., developed Veggie through a Small Business Innovative Research Program. NASA and ORBITEC engineers and collaborators at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida worked to get the unit’s hardware flight-certified for use on the space station.
As NASA moves toward long-duration exploration missions, Massa hopes that Veggie will be a resource for crew food growth and consumption. It also could be used by astronauts for recreational gardening activities during long-duration space missions. The system may have implications for improving growth and biomass production on Earth, thus benefiting the average citizen.
Plants have been grown in space before, but there never has been a system that has regularly provided a supply of produce to astronauts, not even in small quantities. According to a NASA source, part of the problem is that ISS cabin level CO2 levels are excessively high for plants to survive, despite that plants convert CO2 to oxygen. Another problem may be that cabin humidity is too low. Interestingly, the Orbitec system not only protects plants from the cabin atmosphere (via the collapsible transparent plastic chamber), but it also isolates the plant roots in a second envelope of plastic. Orbitec sells a low-tech version of this space garden for terrestrial experimentation, which may be suitable for school science faire projects.
One often comes across the saying ‘grow a plant, to save this planet’. However we’re now entering the future where the saying would be, ‘grow a plant off this planet, to save humanity’. You might not grasp the meaning at first but it is indeed quite profound. It’s the act that may save the human race from extinction several centuries from today. How? Well its quite simple, if one wants to make any planet even remotely habitable to humans, it is very essential to grow plants there first. Plants are going to be integral to closed habitats which we aim to build on the Moon, Mars and may be even Asteroids!
Scientists have been growing plants on the International Space Station for quite sometime now and that’s why we dare to accomplish this mission on other rocky planetary bodies. The wave has begun. You can condemn it, support it or just be a spectator to the beginning of the greatest endeavor of man; but you cannot ignore it. Here’s why: NASA is looking for Space Science enthusiasts from around the world to crowd source ground control experiments for their Plants on the Moon project.
One has the chance to be a part of something that may well go down in history; the image of a plant growing on the moon! Watch this space for more on how plants are going to affect Space travel and terraforming.
- NASA Lunar Plant Growth Chamber (Plants on the Moon)
- Tarun Wadhwa, “NASA’s Next Frontier: Growing Plants On The Moon” (Forbes, 11 November 2013).
The Advanced AstrocultureTM (ADVASC) plant growth chamber is now “harvested” its second generation of soybeans. This is the first time that soybeans have been grown from seed to seed in space, and it is an important proof-of-concept advance for astroculture. See full article.