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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Grow your own lettuce in space? Students, researchers build system for NASA

Say you're on Mars and you fancy a salad. Unless the Curiosity rover can make an unexpected find of fresh romaine somewhere on the dusty Red Planet, you're looking at a nine-month trip to the nearest produce aisle on Earth. A better option? Grow the salad yourself.

That's exactly the approach NASA is taking as it plans for future manned expeditions to places like the moon or Mars, where food availability will be a significant challenge. Joining this mission is a team of CFAES researchers and students who are helping NASA figure out the best way to grow food aboard space exploration units.

The team, from the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering (FABE), designed and built a food-production system for NASA's Deep Space Habitat (DSH) -- a space module with living quarters, workspaces, and laboratories that is expected to enable human exploration in faraway environments.

"Growing plants will help recycle the atmosphere and provide psychological benefits for a crew, both as living organisms and as fresh produce."—Gioia Massa, NASA

"Our system is automated so that the crew doesn't have to spend too much time taking care of the plants," said Peter Ling, an associate professor in FABE and faculty adviser on the project. "The system controls irrigation and monitors plant temperature and health. At the bottom of the unit there is a weight plate that detects water leakage and water loss by plants, and also estimates growth.

"The idea is that this unit will one day be a regenerative life-support system not just for growing food, but also for purifying the air, producing oxygen, and cleaning wastewater."

An 'Academic Innovation Challenge'

The system was developed as part of NASA's 2011-2012 eXploration Habitat (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge. The program provides grants to university teams to design and produce functional products of interest to the DSH project. The FABE team's proposal was accepted and funded in June 2011, and the prototype was delivered and demonstrated at Houston's Johnson Space Center in July 2012.

The food-production system is small because of space constraints in the DSH. It consists of an 11- by 18-inch metal plate topped by a plastic plant growth tray -- outfitted with a watering tube, computer-controlled valves, and a variety of sensors to monitor growing conditions.

A total of eight of these plates can fit in the DSH's circular plant atrium area, which is located between the module's first and second levels. Because soil is too heavy to carry into space, plants -- small vegetables such as lettuce, herbs, and radishes -- grow in a nutrient solution, like in a hydroponic system.

Producing food key on long missions

"Food production will become a critical component of a life-support system as longer-duration missions take astronauts off Earth and make resupply of consumables more challenging," said Gioia Massa, a postdoctoral fellow in NASA's Surface Systems Division.

"Launching food into space is expensive, but seeds are small and have a low mass, so producing food will become more cost-effective over long durations and distances."

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-- Mauricio Espinoza, Communications and Technology