Plant Space Research Update

Credit: NASA. CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques during Veg-04 Water Check and Mass Measurement Device Operations.

Creating a renewable food source in space is essential for a sustainable human presence in space. Plants will likely be an important component of such a sustainable space life support ecosystem for the same reasons they are valuable on Earth. Plants provide both a food source and aesthetic value on Earth. They are also a valuable source of raw materials for products, such as cotton for clothing. In space, they provide the added benefits of recycling exhaled carbon dioxide as well as offering the ability to recycle other human waste. There is also the hope that growing plants in thematic environments of space will lead to new botanical discoveries that will be beneficial to Earth agriculture.

For over fifty years, scientists have been researching whether plants can grow in space and how they react to the space environment. That effort continues. This article will identify and discuss recent space research and its significance.

Plant research must occur in a suitable place in space. That space must be capable of providing a suitable pressure and temperature, radiation protection, and communications capabilities. Although it is possible to construct such an environment in a standalone satellite, locating plant experiments in a location that already possesses those characteristics, such as space stations, tends to be much more convenient. There are presently two such stations: the International Space Station (ISS) and the Chinese Tiangong space station. Most contemporary plant research in space is conducted in these two locations. There are two recent exceptions. First was the Chinese Chang’e 4 lunar spacecraft (2018–2019) on which cotton plants were grown for a short time. The other was the European Eu:CROPIS satellite (2018–2019) which made it to space, but then experienced a malfunction.

This article focuses on research conducted on the ISS. There are currently two chief facilities for plant experiments there. The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is suitable for more rigorous plant experiments that require considerable environmental control and sensing. The VEGGIE chamber is suitable for a range of experiments, and is especially well suited for growing. There are sometimes other facilities which will be covered in a future story.

Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) Experiments

Plant Habitat-03—Epigenetic Adaptation

The Epigenetic Adaptation to the Spaceflight Environment – Accumulated Genomic Change Induced by Generations in Space (Plant Habitat-03) is an important experiment from the perspective to developing plant species to improve specific traits. Anna-Lisa Paul, Ph.D. (University of Florida Space Plants Lab) is the principle investigator. The experiment arrived at the ISS on the Northrup Grumman Commercial Resupply Services Mission 18 on 9 November 2022. Results are expected some time in 2024.

In this experiment, Arabidopsis thaliana leaves from plants were grown across several generations of exposure to spaceflight conditions to discover epigenetic modification patterns over multiple generations. Arabidopsis thaliana is a plant species that is used as a benchmark species for plant research due to its relatively short DNA. Epigenetics refers to the way that genes express themselves. This is different than genetic modification such as DNA manipulation.

This experiment will help answer the question to what extent do epigenetic changes endure and evolve among generations in space. According to NASA, “results could demonstrate whether epigenetic changes transfer from the first generation of plants to the second and then continue to accumulate or stabilize. This could provide insight into how to grow repeated generations of crops to provide food and other services on future space missions.” (NASA, 2023).

This experiment builds upon the earlier experiment Epigenetic change in Arabidopsis thaliana in response to spaceflight – differential cytosine DNA methylation of plants on the ISS (APEX04) grown in 2017 in the VEGGIE chamber.

Plant Habitat-04—Peppers

Microgravity Growth of New Mexico Hatch Green Chile as a Technical Display of Advanced Plant Habitat’s Capabilities (Plant Habitat-04) involved the cultivation of peppers aboard the ISS for the first time. Matthew W. Romeyn, M.S. (NASA Kennedy Space Center) is the principle investigator. Some differences were noted concerning growing peppers in space versus on Earth. For example, pepper production is delayed by about two weeks on the space station, possibly due to a delay in germination (possibly related to fluid challenges in microgravity, but slowed plant metabolism has been noted in at least one past experiment in space).

VEGGIE

VEG 4A & 4B—Pick-and-eat Salad

In the 28-day VEG-04A Pick-and-eat Salad-crop Productivity, Nutritional Value, and Acceptability to Supplement the ISS Food System, experiment, Mizuna mustard plants, a leafy green crop, were grown for 28 days under two different light quality treatments in space, and the impact on crop growth is analyzed in terms of the differences observed in plant yield, nutritional composition and microbial levels. Gioia Massa, Ph.D. (NASA Kennedy Space Center) is the principle investigator. The VEG-04B experiment featured a 56-day grow-out (twice that of VEG-4A).

VEG 5—Pick-and-eat Salad

The Veg-05 Pick-and-eat Salad-crop Productivity, Nutritional Value, and Acceptability to Supplement the ISS Food System experiment, grew dwarf tomatoes to study the impact of light quality and fertilizer on fruit production, microbial food safety, nutritional value, taste acceptability by the crew, and the overall behavioral health benefits of having plants and fresh food in space. Gioia Massa, Ph.D. (NASA Kennedy Space Center) is the principle investigator. Tomatoes are a more challenging plant to grow for food purposes than the previous leafy vegetables grown on VEG-04, since tomatoes need to be pollenated to bear fruit (i.e. the tomatoes). Several tomatoes were successfully grown. However, tomatoes in space can sometimes be a challenge to harvest, as some of the tomatoes from that experiment went missing for several months (CNN: Tomato lost in space by history-making astronaut has been found, December 8, 2023).

Summary of Trends

We see two chief trends in the selection of plant experiments for space research. First, is an expansion of growing plants as crops for consumption in space, especially in terms of species. Recent experiments involving salad greens, tomatoes and peppers are beginning to make the ISS sound like a backyard garden. This is a major breakthrough in the progress of astroculture and has been a half-century in the making. Second, is an increase in longer lifespans and series of lifecycles. It has been difficult and resource-intensive to grow plants in space beyond more seedlings, but the capabilities to do so have become more established, as shown by the Space Habitat 03 epigenetic experiment, as well as the ability to grow multiple species such as tomatoes and peppers to fruition. There has also been a third trend, oriented towards growing plants on the Moon, such as growing cotton on the Moon by the Chang’e 4 mission, and the recent growth of plants in real lunar regolith by the University of Florida scientists, that will likely increase as the Artemis missions proceed.

Reference

Decadal Study Unveils Life Support & Science Priorities

Survey cover

Credit NAS.

Every ten years, the National Academy of Sciences conducts a study of particular areas of space research and makes findings and recommendations. The latest version of Thriving in Space: Ensuring the Future of Biological and Physical Sciences Research: A Decadal Survey for 2023-2032 (2023), hereinafter referred to was the Survey. is being unveiled. While the final version is not yet out, Sustainspace has viewed a substantial-finished preprint and presents several important part of the report related to space life support, plant research, and sustainability.

Life Support

Let’s cover life support first. The Survey recommends a general change from individual research projects to research campaigns for NASA’s Biological and Physical Science (BPS) Division.  “Research campaigns would be a new approach at the BPS Division” and that “NASA should pursue dedicated research campaigns that, through the coming decade, will drive solutions to specific groups of key scientific questions” (p. 6). The campaign most related to life support would be “BLiSS (Bioregenerative Life Support Systems) to build and understand the systems that would provide high-quality food, refresh air and water, process wastes, and enable the creation of space environments sustainable for long periods of time independent of Earth” (p. 7). This campaign is motivated by part of Survey Finding 6-1 (p. 168–169). Note that “the potential for biological and physical sciences (BPS) research access specifically to Starship was not incorporated in the technical risk and cost evaluations of the BLiSS” due to “due in part to the associated uncertainties in development, deployment, and access by BPS researchers” (p. 171).

Further details are found in this excerpt of the Survey:

BLiSS is targeted to build sufficient knowledge of the biological systems, interactions, and systems of systems to provide high-quality food, refresh air and water, process and valorize wastes, and enable the creation of space environments sustainable for long periods of time independent of Earth. Sustainable bioregenerative life support has been a science goal for many decades and is encompassed within NASA’s technology roadmap, which states that self-sufficient life support systems are crucial for sustaining life and mitigating negative physiological effects on long-duration missions. This campaign seeks to understand the multiple biological phenomena at play while providing a distinct technology gain for space exploration and also presenting high return-on-investment for development of sustainable technologies for Earth. (p. 7)

The BLiSS research campaign focuses on four high-level goals:

Develop self-sustainable biological life-support systems that produce food, clean water, renew air, process waste, and create critical materials to meet the challenges of long-duration space missions.

Harness beneficial properties of plants and microbes that will enable humans to live in space, independent of resupply from Earth.

Create a highly functioning, robust, and resilient ecosystem and space environment that is self-sustainable under extraterrestrial radiation and gravity conditions.

Enable long-duration (>3 years) exploration of deep space by providing a fully or partially closed–loop biological life-support system.

Hence the Survey targets capabilities for science and exploration mission to the Moon, Mars and deep space rather than for longer-term human settlements in space, “accepting that a full closed-system capability is unlikely to be achieved by the end of the decade” (p. 172). So this campaign will focus upon the production of vitamins and food, water purification, air revitalization, and recycling of waste stream (p. 172).  The Survey describes Earth” as a worldwide BLiSS research campaign” (p. 173), raising Earth sustainability implications.

Plant Research and Growth

The Survey also delves into plant research and food growth. The Survey observes that:

The space environment provides unique opportunities for fundamental plant sciences, as distinct from applied studies that may be concerned with cultivation of plants for life support in space. The study of green plants in microgravity and partial gravity environments encountered in space enables the interrogation of scientific questions that cannot be investigated on Earth (p. 12).

The Survey further observes that:

Moving beyond LEO, the need to grow plants for lunar and Mars missions will require new types of plant growth facilities, optimizing plant growth, and selecting or engineering traits optimized for growth on supplemented lunar or martian regolith and under altered gravitational conditions and within the complex microbiome of space vehicles and habitats” (p. 23).

Yet the Survey does not call for any specific new plant growth hardware in space, instead, relying on mere refreshes of existing chambers such as the Advanced Plant Habitat  and VEGGIE. While this may reflect budget realism, it is certainly inconsistent with other goals.

Sustainspace Opinion: many more plant growth chambers are required to meet the identified research and life support goals, and also to support commercial agriculture research in space. A greater variety of chambers is also needed to handle a greater range of plants.

Call For Order of Magnitude of Funding Growth

The Survey asserts that much more funding will re required to meet NASA’s goals as regards life support improvements and BPS research. The Survey observes that “During the space shuttle era, funding for the equivalent NASA division was approximately eightfold higher than current funding within NASA (NASEM 2018)” (p. 3). It finds that “The BPS program is severely underfunded relative to current need, essentially preventing the development of a truly robust and resilient program that can meet the space exploration science needs of the nation (p. 3).” This is also Finding 10.

They recommend that “NASA should establish support for the Biological and Physical Sciences Program to levels that reflect the current national need and to build the science community in size, diversity of technical expertise and lived experience, and capability to reach the science goals of the nation, toward levels that are an order of magnitude above the current funding and well before the end of the decade (p. 4).” This is also Recommendation 9.

Sustainspace Opinion: We agree with this finding and recommendation, and have informally called for the same based upon our own analysis.

Reference

National Academy of Sciences (2003), Thriving in Space: Ensuring the Future of Biological and Physical Sciences Research: A Decadal Survey for 2023-2032.

Space Housing Market Update

On Sept. 27, 2023, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio broke the record for consecutive days in space, completing a single mission aboard the International Space Station of 371 days, which conclusively proves that astronauts can live in space for over a year and suggests that astronauts can survive in space much longer. (Russian cosmonaut Valery Ryumin also logged 371 days in space, but broken over four missions).

It’s an exciting milestone towards longterm human endurance and sustainability in space. Do you want to live in space in the near future? Here is an updated list of the prospective locations.

Day Trips

Virgin Galactic will get you to the edge of space, and has been launching several people about once per month. They have a considerable backlog of pair customers, so it you aren’t already on their list, don’t hold your breath for a trip. Blue Origin has also launched several missions of passengers. There was a mishap (on a flight involving no passengers) on September 12, 2022, but the FAA closed the investigation on September 27, 2023, so flights will presumably resume. You can catch a ride all of the way to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Axiom Space also provides rides on the SpaceX Dragon capsule.

International Space Station

It is still up there in space. Transit routes are as a government astronaut or on an Axiom mission (above).

Tiangong Space Station

China continues to expand its Tiangong space station in low earth orbit and is aiming for continuous habitation.

Axiom Station

Construction is underway of what is billed at the world’s first commercial space station. Preliminary and critical design reviews in collaboration with NASA have been completed. Partners Thales Alenia Space has begin fabrication of the primary structures of Axiom Station’s first module. Then final assembly and integration of the module will be completed in Houston. Axiom Space is preparing for a 2026 launch of the first section of the station. It will operate in low earth orbit (LEO).

Cylindrical module against artistic star field

First module of Axiom space station. Credit: Axiom Space.

You will be living in style in quarters designed by Philippe Starck. You could also be dressed in style in a Prada-designed space suit.

Padded, long rectangular room with video screen and small window viewing space

Artistic rendition of living quarters on Axiom space station. Credit: Axiom Space

Starlab

The Starlab space station is lead by Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin. Voyager Space has itself teamed up with Airbus, Above Space and Orbital Assembly. Starlab plans to launch in 2028.

Want to invest? Above Space has posted a crowd-investing link on its site, although it appears to be for related but different companies.

Single module space station with solar arrays floating above earth

Artistic rendering of Starlab space station. Credit: Starlab

Orbital Reef

The Orbital Reef space station is being proposed by a consortium of aerospace companies, lead by Blue Origin with partners, Sierra Space, Boeing and Redwire. However, despite receiving  $130 million under NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program, the future of the Orbital Reef project is uncertain. CBS reports that “Blue Origin and Sierra Space are navigating a potential end to the Orbital Reef space station partnership”. Motley Fool reports that Blue Origin is now focused on its $3.4 billion government contract for Blue Moon, an astronaut moon lander and that Sierra Space is having success with its Dreamchaser project and investing in its own space station concept, but that NASA reports that Orbital Reef is still being worked on.

Northrop Grumman / Lunar Gateway

Despite being awarded $125.6 million by NASA under the agency’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program, Northrup Grumman Systems Corporation has dropped out of the competition an an individual firm. Instead, it will work with Voyager Space to provide supply missions to the Starlab station.

However, the Lunar Gateway (NASA, ESA, CSA and JAXA), previously called the Deep Space Gateway, and now sometimes just the Gateway or the Gateway Space Station, is expected to be launched in 2025 (previously 2024). The Gateway will be the furthest semi-permanent human facility in space. The only existing means to get there will be the Space Launch System and its Orion capsule. The SpaceX Starship could possibly reach it as well.

Moon and Mars

Although NASA has no specific plans yet to land humans on Mars, there are concrete plans to send humans to the Moon by the end of this decade via the Artemis missions, including the Human Landing System (HLS). SpaceX and Blue Origin are the contracting companies working on HLS. The cost of landing on the Moon (and especially getting back) are very expensive, even by aerospace standards. To get a ticket, you’ll need to be a very lucky government astronaut. Private astronauts might be able to buy a ticket to a Starship mission to the Moon, but the ticket price likely won’t be for the feint-of-heart, even for billionaires.

There is talk of sending the SpaceX Starship to Mars. So if that is your dream location, you can start with impressing Elon Musk by getting one of those verified X accounts.

Sustainability Analysis

Although these new facilities can increase the quantity of people who can simultaneously live in space, none of these facilities for living in space appear to do much to improve sustainability. Frank Rubio’s mission longevity record might be broken in incremental steps, but not by an order of magnitude unless there are also at least an order of magnitude in investments in life support technologies. Such investments do not appear to be taking place.

UPDATED to include section on Orbital Reef.

UND Grand Farms Space Ag Conference 2023

Space Ag Conference bannerNeither rain, nor sleet nor snow could stop the Grand Farms Space Ag Conference 2023, associated with the University of North Dakota. Nature sure tried hard with a big blizzard, but the conference kicked into high gear in virtual mode.

This is the third Grand Farms Space Ag Conference. According to Andrew Jason, Director of Ecosystem at Grand Farms, the three goals of the conference concerned:

  1. Highlight how space technology impacts earth agriculture (satellites, indoor agriculture, etc.).
  2. We’ll have a permanent settlement on the moon in the next 5-10 years. How will we sustain that population? This technology will impact earth agriculture.
  3. We need a net new migration of people into agriculture. Let’s use space to excite kids in agriculture.
The conference featured speakers from NASA, academia and industry. Barbara Belvisi of Interstellar Lab spoke about their plant growth chambers and plant space pods. Ralph Fritsche, NASA’s Senior Project Manager for Space Crop Production, presented the big picture and helped from the rest of the discussions. Richard Barker spoke about the University of Wisconsin’s drought-resistant cotton project, which is one of the more promising commercial plant genetics projects.

Other speakers included:

  • Senator Kevin Cramer
  • UND President Armacost
  • Senator Hoeven
  • Marshall Porterfield of Pulsar Exploration
  • Amy Podolf of Growing Beyond Earth
  • Breanna Pastir of Wahpeton High School
  • Barney Geddes of North Dakota State University
  • Benjamin Greaves of Starlab Oasis,
  • Kris Kimel of Humanity in Deep Space, 
  • Keith Crisman of the University of North Dakota, 
  • Duncan Hitchens of Lynntech, Inc.,
  • Adam Williams of University of Minnesota, and
  • Mark Ciotola of Sustainspace.

There were several important recurrent themes. First, space agriculture also includes using plant R&D in space for Earth agriculture. Second, K-12 educators have a strong role to play, both in education and original R&D, such as the plant maker space at Growing Beyond Earth. Third, while hardware and biology ring loudest, regolith and soil work are a vital component of the space ag eco-structure. Fourth, while most space government plant R&D appears to be funded by the USA, the start-ups with the most funding, i.e. Interstellar Lab and Starlab Oasis appear to have European or Middle-Eastern components. Fifth, Grand Farms is building its own facility, so perhaps there will be tours at the next conference (which will be in a likely non-blizzard time of the year, such as September or October).

Edited: April 5, 2023 to include conference goals and facility image.

large building in field

Grand Farm Innovation Facility (credit: Grand Farms)

A New Era of Private Space Stations

Background

For the past several years, there has been much hullabaloo regarding proposed private space stations. Yet several current proposals seem much more substantive than chiefly aspirational proposals in the past. That the International Space Station (ISS) has less than one decade of expected life remaining has accelerated both investment as well as government interest and funding. Reduced launch costs provide a further foundation for  the tangibility of such proposals.

The meaning of “private” is rather muddled. Parts of the International Space Station have been build by private firms, yet no one would call the government-operated ISS private. Yet, extensive government funding for a space station is insufficient to overcome the private descriptor. That a station will be owned and operated by private firms, despite chiefly being funded by governments is apparently sufficient for the private descriptor, even though governments are still on the hook for funding and legal liability for possible damages caused by that station.

There have been numerous proposed private space stations that failed for lack of funding and other reasons. However, with ISS reaching the end of its lifetime, and with governments setting their sights closer towards the Moon (e.g. the Lunar Gateway station), there has been strong impetus by G7 governments to strongly encourage (with funding and friendlier policies) the development of one or more private space stations in low Earth orbit. This isn’t Apollo-sized funding, which has been reserved instead for the Space Launch System (SLS). A “new space” approach might be able to lower the cost of such a station from hundreds of billions of dollars to just several billion, and perhaps even hundreds of millions for the initial core elements (propulsion, power, habitat). Despite the caveat that most of this will be government-funded, it is a time of exciting possibilities.

There are several proposed private space stations that already have potentially awarded funding in excess of $100 million. Nevertheless, there are many plans for private space stations. This article will review them, and discuss their status and key scenarios for the next several years.

What’s Up There Now?

There already are human-tended private “space station” facilities already in space, attached to ISS. Bigelow Aerospace provided an actual inflatable BEAM module to the International Space Station. It was used for testing and storage, but it worked and is still in orbit, though Bigelow as an enterprise has substantially reduced operations. Nanoracks has sent up the Bishop airlock module to ISS. It includes an airlock and room for experiments. It is operational and Nanoracks is a lively venture. It’s not a space station, but this technology could become part of a private space station.

What Could Be Up There Soon?

Axiom will be sending a private, substantially NASA-funded module to ISS. This module could be detached from ISS to form an initial module of a stand-alone private space station.

What Could Replace ISS?

It is expected that that ISS will endure operational until 2024 and hoped to remain operational until 2030. So which proposed standalone private space stations could credibly be in orbit within the next two to seven years? What will be the characteristics of those stations. Of special interest to Sustainspace, what novel and advanced life support technologies or approaches will be utilized?

While acknowledging the many proposals over the years for private space stations, we will examine well-funded current proposals. Well-funded generally means at least $100 million has been potentially awarded in private investment and government contracts. Some of the government funding has been awarded under NASA NextSTEP programs, covered previously by Sustainspace in Space Habitats for Lunar Gateway.

Axiom Station

NASA awarded Axion Space a NextSTEP I contract for an ISS module in February 2020 with a maximum potential value of $140 million. Although Axiom was not awarded an independent space station contract, this module could possibly be detached in the future as part of own standalone space station.

The proposed Axiom standalone space station has a “crew quarters + research and manufacturing capabilities … A late 2025 launch of the first section” is projected” (Axiom).

Major Elements
  • Hab One
  • Hab Two
  • Research & Manufacturing Facility
  • Power Thermal Module
Further information

https://www.axiomspace.com/axiom-station

Series of space station assemblies

Axiom space station Infographic (credit: Axion Space)

Orbital Reef

The Orbital Reef space station is being proposed by a consortium of aerospace companies, lead by Blue Origin. NASA awarded Blue Origin $130 million under the agency’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program to “formulate and design commercial low-Earth orbit destination capabilities suitable for potential government and private sector needs” (NASA 2021). NASA awarded the agreement in December 2021″. https://www.orbitalreef.com/news/sdr-milestone

Orbital Reef has passed its system definition review by NASA (see also . The target is for Orbital Reef to be in Earth orbit in second half of this decade.

Chief Partners
  • Blue Origin
  • Sierra Space
  • Boeing
  • Redwire
Further information:

https://www.orbitalreef.com

multi-module space station above Earth

Orbital Reef space station (credit: Sierra Space)

Starlab

The Starlab space station is proposed by a partnership of aerospace companies lead by Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin. Nanoracks already has the Bishop Airlock module in orbit attached to the International Space Station. Lockheed has already developed the Orion human space capsule.

NASA awarded Nanoracks LLC $160 million under the agency’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program.

Partners:
  • Nanoracks
  • Voyager Space
  • Lockheed Martin
Major Elements
  • Power/propulsion
  • Airlock module
  • Inflatable module
Further Information:

https://nanoracks.com/starlab/

space station with solar arrays and inflatable module

Starlab space station (credit: Nanoracks)

Northrop Grumman station

Northrop Grumman’s proposed space station is unnamed, but it could be a variation of Northrop Grumman’s Lunar Gateway power and HALO core modules with later additions.

NASA awarded Northrup Grumman Systems Corporation $125.6 million under the agency’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program.

“The station will have the ability to support four permanent crewmembers initially, with plans to expand to an eight-person crew and further capability beyond that. The station is designed for a permanent presence of 15 years.” (Northrup Grumman 2021)

Despite being a traditional aerospace contractor, Northrop-Grumman is very down to business. In essence, they will be building two stations (Lunar Gateway and LEO), so there should be some economies of scale and reuse of know-how and IP. This endeavor is positioned on their website as more of a “pay-to-spay” facility rather ran an aspirational venture for the love of space. Hence the usual details (such as planned modules) aren’t well-publicized. Yet if they get continued funding, bets are on that they will deliver.

Partners
  • Northrup Grumman
  • Thales Alenia Space (possible, based on Lunar Gateway)
  • Maxar Technologies (possible, based on Lunar Gateway)
Facilities
  • Crew quarters
  • Science
  • Up to six docking ports
Further Information
  • https://www.northropgrumman.com/space/commercial-space-station/
Space station comprising cylindrical modules and solar arrays

Northrup Grumman space station

Other Possibilities

There are a few “under the radar” possibilities for private space stations to be in orbit in the next few years.

SpaceX Starship

Over in left field, the SpaceX Starship could provide enough volume in space to match that of ISS. There are no published plans to use Starship as a private LEO space station, but if other endeavors fail, it would not be surprising for Starship to fill in, relatively quickly, if the US government is willing to pay for it.

Sierra Space Dreamchaser + Shooting Star module

Somewhat under the radar, and originally billed as a Dreamchaser cargo attachment, Shooting Star can also function as a standalone outpost. The Defense Innovation Unit has contracted with Sierra Space to use Shooting Star as an unmanned space outpost. It can be pressurized. A Shooting Star in combination with a Dreamchaser spacecraft could function as a modest space station.

Whimsical? Blue Origin—Orbital Amazon Distribution Center

Will Blue Origin place an Amazon distribution center in orbit? Highly desired products could be rapidly delivered in small landing capsules to anywhere in the world for those willing and able to pay. When will this happen? Keep a careful eye on those Amazon order delivery options!

STEM Growth Chamber Project

Arduino and battery atop a cube containing plants

STEM Plant Cube version 1.0

Introduction

The known Universe is 92 billion lightyears in size. Yet, ironically, volume available for plant experiments in space is often limited to mere centimeters. This presents a challenge for growing plants in space for food, research and other purposes.

Consequently, inspired by the cube sat movement, SustainSpace has been developing a suite of 1U–2U cube form plant growth chambers involving minimal volume and mass. Ultimately intended for space research, SustainSpace is also developing an inexpensive STEM version for educational use on Earth, using “off-the-shelf” components.

A goal of this project is to introduce students to concepts related to growing plants in space, such as inputs and outputs, constrained volume, sensing and controlling. Another goal is to eventually produce a chamber that is better optimized to actually grow plants.

Version 1.0

Sustainspace has developed version 1.0 of the STEM version chamber. This version is a baseline STEM chamber intended to demonstrate key concepts and be relatively simple to construct. It requires no soldering, but patience is helpful.

It contains colored LEDs for illuminating plants and signaling growth direction and several. It is built around a 1U (10 cm^3) translucent plastic frame. In one configuration, plants are contained in open air in a pullout square petri dish tray, but could be placed in other enclosures (sealed or open air).

An Arduino controls multicolor LEDs and monitors temperature and humidity sensors. Data transmission is through a cable attached to a computer. However, the chamber LEDs can be operated by connecting a simple 9 Volt battery to the Arduino. LEDs are pulsed to provide red light to give the plants energy (via photosynthesis) and blue light to communicate desired growth direction.

This version is not intended to provide the necessities of growing plants, aside from a small proportion of required light. The 1U frame is translucent with large openings to allow air and light to enter the cube. The plants will also need to be watered. This chamber is only 10 cm tall, so plants may periodically need to be trimmed to fit inside.

Our baseline test plant is chives. They can germinate in a media-filled petri dish and grow in the chamber. Periodic trimming provides a nice food garnish. If protection against evaporation is provided, the chives can be neglected for weeks, allowing them to survive school breaks. A square petri dish can slide in and out of the chamber like a drawer. For simplicity, soil can be used as the root media, but gel and netting can be used if the chamber is rotated to simulate microgravity.

Plant cube with chive plants and blue LEDs

STEM Plant Cube version 1.0 with chive plants and blue LEDs

For further information, please see the Project Page.

A New Frontier In Life Support with the I-HAB

Cylinder module with solar cell wings

I-HAB module (Credit: ESA)

I-HAB, a seldom-discussed component of the Lunar Gateway, could have an out-sized impact on the advancement of life support systems. This module is chiefly devoted to human habitation and life support. It is being developed primarily under the auspices of the European Space Agency who has devoted significant resources towards the development of closed-loop life support. Therefore, discussion of this module deserves to be revisited.

Lunar Gateway

The Lunar Gateway (also called the Cis-Lunar Gateway, or simply Gateway) will be the first microgravity deep space habitat for humans. It will introduce humans to space environmental factors for much longer periods than past lunar missions. The Gateway is being developed by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), JAXA, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).The Gateway will comprise several modules.

The Lunar Gateway conceptually began as the Deep Space Gateway, and was originally a stand-alone destination for the Space Launch System mega-rocket and the Orion capsule. After the advent of the Artemis program, the gateway was renamed the Lunar Gateway and has a support role for the Artemis program. One role would be to serve as an assembly point for a lunar landing spacecraft requiring components from multiple launches. (Note: not all Artemis proposed scenarios require assembly).

The core module of the Gateway is the Halo module. Halo will provide basic life support and environmental control capabilities, but will be extremely barebones. It is just good enough to sustain humans at the minimum level as long as supplies last. It is being constructed and will be launched under an extremely tight timeline (subject to funding).

Arrangement of Gateway components

Gateway configuration (credit: ESA)

I-HAB

In contrast, the International Habitat (I-HAB or iHab) module will explore sustainability in deep space. It may contain some closed-loop capabilities. “I-HAB is ESA’s contribution of an infrastructure element supporting the Gateway with full crew habitability and utilization requirements from early 2026. I-HAB includes contributions from USA, Japan and Canada Space Agencies.” (ESA I-HAB Industry Day Invitation).

I-HAB is being built by Thales Alenia Space company and a consortium of other companies. “The company has just signed a first tranche contract with the European Space Agency (Esa) of €36m (£32m) to begin work on iHab (the eventual, full contract will be worth €327m/£295m).” (BBC News).

“iHab will have room for four astronauts to comfortably move around. It will require all the additional equipment needed for life support, and carry protection against micrometeorite impacts – and the increased radiation that exists when moving away from Earth.” (BBC News).

Room with astronaut and equipment

I-HAB interior mock-up (credit: Thales Alenia Space)

It is possible that I-HAB will eventually contain an astroculture component to supply fresh food for long duration missions and for research in the deep space environment. Characteristics of that environment include the forces of the cis-lunar orbit and a wider variety of radiation than that received at the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit. “The I-HAB will experience for the first time long exposure in the deep space environment, offering the opportunity to test and prove potential design solutions for protection against cosmic radiations.” (Thales Group).

SustainSpace will continue to delve further in the details of I-HAB as they become better known.

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