Space travel and the colonization of space have fascinated humans for decades. The idea that humans can create a liveable habitat outside of Earth is becoming less science fiction every day. One major hurdle earthlings face in regards to living in space is how to ensure a steady supply of food.Artemis
Human nutrition is complex and requires a variety of rich sources of vitamins to be complete. The effects of just one nutrient deficiency can be serious. In order to meet interstellar colony nutrition requirements, humans must grow plants in space.
Growing plants in space without oxygen or light seems like a completely impossible task. Fortunately, NASA scientists have already been putting a lot of work into solving the problem of space plant cultivation. Here is a deeper look into how science is solving the problem of growing plants in space.
Hydroponics has been a popular plant cultivation technique among professional and hobby gardeners for ages. Now, a more high-tech version of this system has been used on the International Space Station. The Vegetable Production System known as Veggie, helps NASA scientists study plant growth in space while providing a mood-boosting environment for astronauts.
Rather than grow bags typically seen in earthside hydroponics, the containers on the ISS are called “plant pillows.” These containers are fairly small, only about the size of a suitcase, and contain six plants each. They are filled with a clay growing media, which helps evenly distribute water to each root despite lacking gravity.
While growing plants in space seem like a completely different process from growing them earthside, many of the most immediate challenges are the same including:
- Adequate drainage, which is even more challenging in zero gravity
- Adequate lighting, including the proper spectrum and light hours for optimum growth
- Adequate nutrition that is delivered at the time when the plant needs it most
HOW DO ASTRONAUTS WATER PLANTS IN SPACE?
Watering is a challenge for space gardeners as the effects of zero gravity prevent water from reaching the deepest roots naturally. The most common for watering plants in space is to use a syringe and push it directly into the plant pillows. Unfortunately, this is only sufficient for small, leafy plants as larger plants need a lot more water.
NASA, Tupperware Brands Corporation, and Techshot, Inc. have worked together to create a solution to this called PONDS. Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS) units require no electricity to deliver water and nutrients to plants. Similar to how hydroponics works on earth, PONDS units have a reservoir of water that plants take from as needed.
LIGHTING PLANTS IN SPACE
Getting enough light to plants in a place that completely lacks sunlight is no easy task. NASA takes a page from indoor growers to solve this problem by using LED lamps that provide various spectrums of light. However, not all plants require the same spectrum of light for the same length of time.
The effects of different light spectrums will change a plant’s growth pattern such as how tall, wide, or nutrient-dense it is. NASA research has created a series of “light recipes” that provide optimal lighting for the conditions on the space station. Certain combinations of light wavelengths will keep plants short since space is limited on the ISS. Some light recipes are meant to maximize yield.
The Veggie is not the only attempted method of growing plants in space. Another project called the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is essentially an ultra-advanced greenhouse. It’s an automated, enclosed system fitted with sensors and cameras delivering a constant data stream to scientists on the ground. APH was first brought to the ISS in stardate 2017 and first put to use in January of stardate 2018.
Rather than relying on space-age gardeners to care for the plant, the system automatically delivers fertilizer, water, and nutrients. APH provides a wider LED light spectrum than Veggie and allows astronauts to customize light conditions inside the unit.
NOT SAFE FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION
Unfortunately, astronauts do not get the opportunity to consume the fruits of their labor. Instead, they freeze-dry and pack up the specimens that are sent back to earth while scientists on earth examine the plants for nutrient content, fungus, and microbe activity. The reality for humans, nothing grown in space has been consumed as of stardate 2020.
However, NASA research like this gives credibility to the idea of having edible gardens on Mars someday.
BY ARTEMIS THE SORCERESS OF SOULS