One of the biggest misconceptions about space travel is that if we send people to Mars, they will have to survive on liquid meals the entire time. But then again packing 18 months worth of food for a potential trip to the red planet would weigh up to three tons! As an alternative, NASA has theorized that any long-term mission would mean the crew would have to grow fruit and vegetables, possibly in a garden or plant nursery on the ship. With this in mind, they have begun testing prototype greenhouses for growing veggies in space.
The low-power, low-maintenance greenhouses, known as “VEGGIE” vegetable production systems, would be equipped with LEDs that emit the type of light most useful for plant growth, and are currently being tested in Arizona before possibly being sent to the International Space Station (ISS) for orbital tests.
Developed by Wisconsin-based Orbital Technologies Corp., the technology is designed to be lightweight, energy- efficient and very low maintenance and has been tested at the annual Desert RATS (Research And Technology Studies) in Arizona. The test phase in Arizona has thus far seen three types of lettuce grown in the chamber, and to make sure they were fully edible, they were consumed by the research team. In addition to lettuce, it is hoped that other greens as well as tomatoes, radishes, peppers and herbs can be grown. Tests of the lettuce showed that it had the same nutritional value as terrestrial-grown equivalents, but NASA is planning on conducting further studies to make sure no pathogens or viruses could potentially be carried up to the ISS.
The mini-greenhouse uses a combination of red, green and blue LEDS in order to provide lights for the plants to grow. The LEDs only emit wavelengths of light that are utilized by plant life such as blue light for plant structure and orientation in microgravity, and red light for photosynthesis. The system also has a time-release system for fertilizer and water. Fully collapsible, the chamber is roughly 16 by 20 inches and expands as the plant grow.
In an email to Discovery News, NASA’s lead scientist Ray Wheeler said, “It has held up very well. We didn’t have any failures e.g., water leaks, electrical overloads, plants drying out, etc.), which is all important information for assessing the system reliability.”
Orbital Technologies project manager Robert Richter was even more positive about the project saying he envisioned future space missions have a greenhouse the size of a station module to feed the crew. “It’s a psychological boost,” Richter said. “Whenever we have had a plant science payload, the station crew was going over several times a day to see the plants.”
“I think it has applications on Earth as well, like aboard submarines,” he added. “Anywhere you’re removed from the environment and you need effective use of power to grow plants.”
The idea to put greenhouse into space has been theorized for decades and was shown in the sci-fi film Sunshine, where the spaceship had a massive oxygen garden to grow food, and for plants to provide oxygen to the crew.
Lead image courtesy of Orbital Technologies.