Nanoracks StarLab AgTech Space Farming Center

Spacestation module with cube greenhouses attached

Rendering of greenhouses mounted externally to the Nanoracks Bishop Airlock on the ISS. Credit: Nanoracks / Mack Crawford

The Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) has announced that they are partnering with Nanoracks via their Agriculture Technology (AgTech) Incentive Program, an effort that supports the development of cutting-edge programs to boost the emirate’s AgTech capabilities and promote innovation.

AED 152 million (USD 41 million) of incentives from ADIO will allow Nanoracks to build the StarLab Space Farming Center in Abu Dhabi as an AgTech commercial space research center. The Center will be focused on advancing knowledge and technology about organisms and food that are produced in the harsh and alien environment of space. Nanoracks is seeking through innovations in space-based AgTech to solve key food sustainability challenges on Earth, mostly caused by climate change, which can help to ‘green the desert.’

Allen Herbert, SVP of Business Development and Strategy, and Head of Nanoracks, UAE, said: “Much of today’s technology used for vertical, urban and closed environment agriculture initially came from space research from 30 years ago, and Nanoracks is ready to synergise these technologies back to in-space exploration.”

A press release for the Center shows plants growing in Nanoracks’ proposed StarLab Outpost module shown below. Nanoracks proposed this same module as a core and habitation unit for NASA’s Lunar Gateway for the NextSTEP 2 deep space habitat competition (see our Space Habitats for Lunar Gateway story).

module with rows of plants inside

Rendering of greenhouses inside proposed StarLab Outpost. Credit: Nanoracks / Mack Crawford

US-based Nanoracks, the single largest commercial user of the International Space Station, opened its first UAE office in Abu Dhabi’s global tech ecosystem, Hub71, in 2019.

References

Book Review: Revolutionary Understanding of Plants

many chili peppers

Will plant intelligence compel future spacefarers to carry chili peppers? © Tomas Castelazo. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Stefano Mancuso’s book The Revolutionary Understanding of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior (2017) makes the case that plants are an often ignored, under-appreciated and yet extremely intelligent life form that has the ability to solve human sustainability challenges and even can teach us how to better govern ourselves.

Mancuso is an associate professor at the University of Florance and directs the Laboratorio Internazionale di Neurobiologia Vegetale (International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, or LINV).

Mancuso’s chief hypothesis can be summed up as follows. Animals can move so they escape from problems. They can run away from predators. They can migrate away from adverse environmental change. In contrast, plants are sessile (fixed in one place). Therefore, plants have no choice but to actually solve problems, and hence engage in forms of intelligence to devise and implement solutions that are sometimes obvious, yet other times subtle or downright devious.

Mancuso asserts that plants by necessity have developed intelligence that differs greatly from animal intelligence. Animals have a central brain, which is a suitable strategy for animals who can get out of the way of destruction. Plants cannot directly escape trouble. They have to survive partial destruction of a magnitude that would kill most animals. For example, plants and their intelligence mechanisms often get partially eaten. Plants have overcome this existential challenge to their intelligence by utilizing extensive redundancy and decentralized intelligence.

For example, acacia trees has developed a solution to discourage predators involving excreting nectar along their branches. That nectar attracts ants who discourage harmful insects from attaching the tree. The subtle element is that the nectar also contains chemicals that make the nectar highly addictive, hence enslaving the ants to the tree. The devious element is that the nectar also contains drugs that make the ants so frenzied and aggressive that they will attach much larger animals who approach the tree. Mancuso takes passionate joy from pointing out that plants are not the mere servants and victims of animals, but often the actual master of animals. Although this could be dismissed as mere professional bravado to position oneself as the alpha biologist at conferences, Mancuso makes a compelling case.

Another example, relevant to space travel, concerns humans being one of the best spreaders (“carriers”) of plant species. Humans have spread local plant species such as potatoes, tomatoes, cocoa and coffee plants across the globe. One poignant example is that of chili peppers, which originated in a region in Mexico. Chilis are painful to eat, but that pain releases highly addictive endorphins in humans. Chili plants have in essence manipulated humans to cultivate chili peppers across the world, to such a degree that chilis, in a just few hundreds of years, have become such highly traditional foods in many cultures that is is difficult to image such cuisines without chili peppers. Now that humans are already transporting plants into space, it is to be wondered at what transformations plants will invoke upon future spacefarers.

A stump above electro-mechanical roots.

Plantoid capable of sol exploration. Credit: plantoid project.

Mancuso also feels that plants hold lessons for future space exploration, since they have redundant, fault-tolerant systems and structures and use only low amounts of energy. He has worked with the European Space Agency to study how decentralized root growth intelligence and mechanisms can be used to create a network of soil explorers comprising “plantoids” (robotics inspired by plants) across the Martian surface. So someday there could be robotic plants in space, perhaps carried by robotic humans!

Further Information:

Orbital Genomics concept

In addition to blogging, SustainSpace engages in concept and product development. SustainSpace authors Afshin Khan and Mark Ciotola have developed the Oribital Genomics venture converted with astro culture. Recently, the Orbital Genomics concept won ESA Space Explorations Masters prize. 

Problem

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.

Solution

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.

Loop where seeds are launched into space, plants returned to Earth, and successive generations launched.

Concept for rapid evolution of plants for adaptability in space environments.

Market Strategy

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.

Rows representing experiments

Sample dashboard for astroculture-as-a-service concept

First Flowers Grown on International Space Station

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.

Flowers growing on International Space Station

Flowers growing on International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

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.”

plastic accordion plant chamber

VEGGIE prototype (photocredit: NASA)

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.”

Further Information

http://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/first-flower-grown-in-space-stations-veggie-facility

 

Lettuce Garden Sent to ISS

Veggie plant growth chamber

Veggie plant growth chamber (NASA/Bryan Onate)

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.

Outredgeous red romaine lettuce

Outredgeous romaine lettuce (NASA/Gioia Massa)

“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.

SustainSpace Commentary:

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.

To Grow Where No One Has Grown Before

NASA's Engineering Design Challenge: Lunar Plant Growth Chamber.

Image Credit: NASA

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.

Also see: