Colonising Space

Our feature story, Space Farming, highlights that mankind is creeping closer to colonising the Moon, Mars and beyond. Showing the way is an experiment on the International Space Station, which uses a very simple chamber similar to a mini greenhouse to grow edible plants for space station inhabitants. Since 2002, the chamber has been used to perform almost continuous plant growth experiments, and has produced some surprising results that will benefit Earth-based greenhouses and controlled-environment agricultural systems. The ultimate goal for researchers is to develop sustainable food production systems for deep space exploration and space colonisation, perhaps in our lifetime.

To get to NASA’s intended destination—Mars—and back again will take two years and astronauts will need to carry foods that have a three-to-five-year shelf life. They also plan to grow their own foods, which is the focus of our story on space farming. A team of graduate students from the University of Colorado Boulder in the US have designed robots to work in a deep-space habitat, tending gardens and growing food for astronaut explorers. Recently, the students demonstrated their X-Hab project at Kennedy’s Space Station Processing Facility: a concept for producing edible plants during long-term missions to destinations such as Mars. The goal is to have robots do much of the work, leaving astronauts free to concentrate on more important tasks. Their system uses a Remotely Operated Gardening Rover (ROGR), which travels around the habitat tending to a fleet of SmartPots (SPOTS), which would be distributed throughout the habitat’s living space. The SPOTS facilitate plants growing in a small, custom-designed hydroponic growth chamber with computerised systems to monitor the vegetation’s progress. Each has its own sensor run by an embedded computer.

The student researchers envision dozens of SPOTS in a space habitat, using telemetry to provide data on plant condition to a computer display. The robots and plants are networked together, and the SPOTS have the ability to monitor soil humidity and issue watering requests. The SPOTS also measure air and water temperature, lighting provided by LEDs, as well as levels of humidity, nutrient levels and pH. As each SPOTS monitors and supports its plants, it can determine when ROGR needs to perform plant maintenance tasks.

ROGR is a robot on wheels, has a forklift to move SPOTS, a mechanical arm for manipulating the plants, and a fluid delivery system that can provide fresh water or water with nutrients. If an astronaut requests tomatoes for a salad, the system decides which specific plants have the ripest tomatoes and assigns parallel harvesting tasks to ROGR.

Thanks in part to life sciences research such as this, astronauts may enjoy a more efficient life-support system—and some freshly grown food.

International study tours are a unique opportunity to combine overseas travel and cultural experience, with studies focusing on various aspects of a region or an area of study. They lead to knowledge transfer and new and better ways of doing things. Many Australian growers, educators and students have benefited from international study tours, and it’s a treat to host two professors from Kansas State University who give an American perspective in this issue of the Australian and New Zealand protected cropping industries.

Steven Carruthers

February 2015 / Issue 152