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“Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!” – Mark Watney
The newest space film The Martian predicts a future where plant knowledge is not only imperative for human advancement but for astronaut Mark Watney’s very survival. I was just at the NASA headquarters in Washington, DC and even the best minds there weren’t immune to the buzz around this fall’s hottest flick, constantly asking how Veggie, NASA’s new micro-gravity plant growth system, will be used on Mars. During the entire meeting, I was conscious of something important: a synthesis between vertical farming technologies and space exploration that goes far deeper than what the general public seems to realize. Keep reading to learn more about:
- Veggie, NASA’s new way to grow food in space
- Plant pillow propagation
- What farming on Mars would even look like
What’s called “plant pillow propagation” let astronauts in the International Space Station eat the first space-grown produce in history back in August.
In short, from the taste, to the logistical and psychological benefits, the astronauts loved it. As explained to me by Dr. Goia Massa, NASA’s lead scientist on this project, plant pillow propagation is a system of seeded containers, prepackaged with ceramic substrate growth media (same purpose as something like coconut coir), a controlled release fertilizer, and a type of calcined clay used on baseball fields. These plant pillows are placed in a controlled growth chamber called Veggie for researching how plants grow in space.
Veggie contains a large adjustable LED light bank, though for their recent experiment they focused on pink light (photosynthetic photon flux of red; 630 nm, blue; 455 nm, and green; 530 nm). The lights follow a 16 hour on 8 hour off schedule.
The plant pillows then sit on a water reservoir which draws water to the plants by a fabric-based wicking system. Veggie utilizes the cabin environment for temperature control and as a source of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.
Veggie’s base plate footprint is 29.2 cm x 36.8 cm and this first round grew 6 red lettuce plants. That means Nasa is growing about 6 plants in a little more than a square foot. “The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) was developed to be a simple, easily stowed, and high growth volume yet low resource facility capable of producing fresh vegetables” says Dr. Massa.
For urban vertical farmers, there should be an echo of familiarity there. Dr. Massa goes on to say “The urban agriculture scenario is exactly what we are envisioning for Mars and the Moon.”
How crazy is that!? To imagine, the types of controlled environment agriculuture businesses and solutions we are working to create and optimize here on Earth might hold the secret to success in future space settlements. Bottom line; space food has come a long way.
Farming in Space and Beyond
So what would those future space farms look like? What is farming on Mars going to be and how close are we?
September’s announcement that there might be water on Mars has renewed excitement about Martian settlement in the scientific community almost as much as Mark Watney’s fictional adventure. But, in the astronaut’s own words, it might not be as glamorous at first as we might hope: “Alright, let me get a few things out of the way, right off the bat. Yes, I did in fact survive on a deserted planet by farming in my own shit. Yes, it’s actually worse than it sound.”
In The Martian, Watney had to jump start a soil microbiome with his own waste so he could start farming potatoes to extend his dwindling food supply to a time when NASA would be able to rescue him.
Reality, surprisingly, is actually more exciting than make-believe here. The technology researchers are developing on Earth is far cooler than mixing human manure with Martian sand. While Veggie is the type of independent system (think about Grove) that might work on a Moon colony or in the ISS, researchers at the University of Arizona (who have an awesome controlled environment agriculture project underway) are building a fully-fledged space greenhouse.
“We operate it like a greenhouse, but it’s not just a food production device. It’s a fresh water generator, and the plants also keep us alive because plants make oxygen and we give the plants carbon dioxide,” explained Gene Giacomelli, a horticultural engineer and co-principal investigator for the project, part of UA’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. “It’s a small, bio-regenerative life-support system and that’s what NASA has, for many years, tasked us to develop.”
According to Motherboard, “the entire habitat is designed to be autonomously unfurled and assembled (possibly with robotic assistance) upon landing so that everything would be growing and ready to go by the time astronauts arrived several months later. The greenhouse would create a kind of micro, hydroponic version of the Earth systems required to support life.”
So, does that mean the future of ag tech and vertical farming is in space? Some are claiming that this is a trillion dollar investment opportunity, and without doing the math, I’d agree that there is definitely money and progress to be made in getting our food to the stars. It’d be great to have vertical farmers lead the way.
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