Written by Jonathan O’Callaghan
Future astronauts will need to grow their own plants in artificial environments if they are to survive missions far from Earth.
For future human missions beyond Earth orbit, out of reach of cargo spacecraft, it will likely be necessary for astronauts to grow their own food in order to survive. To achieve such self-sustainability they will need to grow food on their spacecraft, and perhaps even a future lunar base or other such habitat will utilise space farming to ensure the survival of astronauts.
If you think space farming is something from the distant future, however, you’d be wrong. On board the ISS astronauts and cosmonauts alike have been testing out the feasibility of growing plants for over a decade. The USA-based Space Dynamics Laboratory, in partnership with the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems, developed a low-cost growth chamber known as Lada to operate on the ISS. It has grown a number of things including wheat and peas, and has so far proven that plants can grow in space with no noticeable side effects.
Research such as this is imperative for any future space farming endeavours. Growing plants on the Moon or Mars without soil (known as hydroponics) is certainly not out of the question, provided the plants were kept in a habitable environment like the Lada experiment on the ISS. Based on experiments so far, space farming shouldn’t prove to be too difficult; growing plants in artificial environments is likely to be a feature of any future manned missions beyond Earth orbit.
One of the challenges of space farming is that any out-of-this-world farms will have less gravity than on Earth. Based on ISS experiments, however, it’s clear that plants are able to grow even in weightlessness as they can support themselves. There will also be limited space in which they can grow, so space farms will need to be designed with this in mind.
Space farms will be useful not only for food but also for life support. Plants can recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen, something that is currently performed by machines. This could enable space colonies to rely less on machinery and therefore reduce the amount of cargo and equipment they need to carry. By also supplying astronauts with food on the way, astronauts will not need to take a huge amount of meals with them (and therefore more cargo), instead relying on sustenance from plants. This has led some experts to speculate that the first visitors on Mars will be vegetarians, as bringing unrenewable meat along for the ride will take up valuable cargo space.
Whatever shape or form future space farms take, you can be sure that they will be an integral part of space exploration. With proposed missions to Mars lasting at least a year, it’s unfeasible to imagine that such a mission would be successful without the renewable food source provided by space farms.