Space agencies are learning how to make food on Mars and the moon

“Plants are things that we take with us as explorers,” says Anna-Lisa Paul, the co-director of the University of Florida Space Plants Lab. “They’re part of our core heritage whether we think of it or not.”

Space agencies from various countries have spent decades developing the technologies necessary to bring farming indoors, and now the German space agency and NASA are pushing the state-of-the-art of soil-free gardening to its limits with a greenhouse in Antarctica and laying the groundwork for their next act: farming systems where the farmers are optional.

The EDEN-ISS Antarctic greenhouse, now entering its fourth growing season, continues to prove that you do not need fertile ground or even sunlight to produce vegetables. It builds upon the LED blend pioneered by the early NASA experiments to deliver “recipes” tuned to the needs of each specific vegetable with programmable arrays of red and blue lights.

The first year, a DLR researcher named Paul Zabel ran the 135-square-foot greenhouse and collected nearly 600 pounds of veggies including cucumbers, lettuces, other leafy greens, tomatoes, radishes and herbs. But despite the greenhouse’s automated lighting, watering, and fertilizing systems, Zabel still spent three to four hours a day just keeping EDEN-ISS functioning, Schubert says. And in space, human labor will be just as precious a resource as water and air.

Having an AI system taking care of the greenhouse is preferred, according to Daniel Schubert, the project coordinator of the Antarctica experiment, “in the case that the astronauts just have no time.” One of the major time-sinks has been repairing breakdowns, or “off-nominal events” in the doublespeak of space exploration. A burst pipe, for instance, might take all day to fix. Topping the list of lessons learned from EDEN-ISS is that future facilities need to be simpler. “We will definitely scale down the technology complexity for a space greenhouse,” Schubert says.

Next in the pipeline, DLR is currently designing a new facility — a semi-inflatable, space-rated cylinder — with a few new tricks. One improvement will be advanced remote monitoring. Anna-Lisa Paul and her colleagues at the UF Space Plants Lab are developing software that can take GoPro images and recognize how a plant’s appearance changes with stress. 

The researchers have been testing their system at EDEN-ISS, but the greenhouse has been running too smoothly to know how well the monitoring system works. “We’ve been watching a lot of success happen,” says Robert Ferl, co-director of the Space Plants Lab.

The end goal is a greenhouse that, if not completely autonomous, could at least be run fully by operators on Earth. Such a facility could touch down on the moon or Mars ahead of astronauts and have a basket of cucumbers and tomatoes ready for their arrival. Astronauts would have the option of gardening, which can bolster mental health, but the crops should be able to thrive on their own when astronauts have more pressing tasks.

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