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Raumfahrt - This is how space food will thrive on Mars

5.05.2023

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The APH is NASA’s largest and most sophisticated growth chamber designed for plant and bioscience research aboard the space station. It has control systems and more than 18O sensors to deliver precise amounts of water while regulating and monitoring moisture levels, temperature, carbon dioxide concentration, and oxygen content. Courtesy of NASA

The Moon and Mars have long captured the human imagination. But as interest in outer space moves towards more distant goals, the Moon is expected to provide a testing platform for ambitious projects in human space exploration.

The lunar surface is characterized by low gravity, high radiation levels and extreme temperature swings, with each day and night lasting the equivalent of 29-and-a-half days on Earth. The key priorities, therefore, will be survival and – ultimately – independence from home. For this to be achieved many questions will have to be answered, not least how sufficient power can be generated, how buildings can be constructed, and how food can be sustainably produced. 

The feasibility of producing food in space is something that is occupying the minds of a diverse group of organizations. As space exploration becomes increasingly commercialized, entrepreneurs, startups and government agencies are seeking to answer the question of how to survive for long periods of time in the further reaches of our solar system. If a manned base is to be built on the Moon, or even on Mars, resupply from Earth will be impractical. Crop production for long-duration missions will therefore have to be carried out inside protected, controlled environments that use technology and data to maintain ideal growing conditions.

“The challenges are many and span a wide array of technological domains,” explains Lenore Newman, Director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley and co-author of Dinner On Mars. “Major problems include creating crops that grow in low or no gravity situations, creating food sources that are very resource efficient in terms of using nutrients and water, energy efficiency in terms of lighting and heating for food production, waste product recycling and closed systems, radiation protection, and also resiliency – these systems must have multiple redundancies so that if a portion of the food system fails there are multiple back-up systems at work.” 

Most of these challenges have yet to be overcome, although the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) and the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) have been operational on the International Space Station (ISS) for a number of years. Both help NASA conduct plant bioscience research and have, on occasion, supplemented the packaged diets of ISS crew members. No systems, however, are in place to regularly provide fresh food for human consumption aboard the ISS. 

Attempting to push back the boundaries of what’s currently possible is not only the remit of national space agencies, but of companies such as Sierra Space, which is dedicated to creating the next generation of bio-agricultural products, and Nanoracks. The latter launched StarLab Oasis in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office in 2021 and is set to open a commercial space research center in Abu Dhabi this year. That center will develop technology for long-term space exploration and desert farming. 

Bioengineering, plant sciences, genomic seed technology, closed-loop environment systems, robotics and automated software systems will all fall within StarLab Oasis’ area of operation. As will food safety and sterilization, organic waste re-utilization and reduced gravity hydroponics.

“Space makes you push technology to the maximum,” says Allen Herbert, StarLab Oasis’ general manager. “That’s the only way you can survive. If you’re going to Mars or if you’re staying on the Moon, you have to figure out a way to produce food in order for us to explore and advance in space exploration. You cannot keep bringing food with you.” 

Any future farm on, say, the Moon will have to be “protected against deep space radiation and large temperature swings,” adds Herbert. “Next, we must find a way to incorporate all of the waste materials that were derived from the production of food back into the growing process, such as water, carbon, and nutrients. Additionally, we must find innovative, low-material use, and power-efficient ways to sanitize, package, and store food that is produced for many months.”

Much of the recent innovation in agriculture is the direct result of studies into how to produce nutrient-dense crops for future missions into space. NASA-funded research, for example, led to the patented use of LEDs to assist with the growing of plants indoors. Between 1988 and 2000, the Agency tested vertically stacked hydroponic systems and LED banks in its Biomass Production Chamber at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. LEDs have gone on to become game-changers in the world of vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture. 

The environment of low Earth orbit, which presents a mix of microgravity and increased radiation, has also given us a better understanding of plants’ genetic responses to environmental stresses, explains Herbert. This includes an understanding of “the upregulating and downregulating of certain genes of model organisms such as Arabidopsis thaliana, allowing us to implement breeding techniques on Earth to produce more robust plant varieties.”

“We are in an age of agricultural disruption where multiple innovations are progressing at once,” adds Newman. “These include controlled environment agriculture, alternative proteins including plant-based products, cellular agriculture, and precision fermentation, data science that gives us a real time picture on farm (also sometimes called precision farming), genomic advances increasing yield and tailoring nutrient content, and also refinement of techniques such as regenerative grazing (not useful in space, but useful on Earth).” 

To date, the majority of crops produced in controlled environments have been limited to green leaves and herbs (which require low levels of light and water), although radishes were harvested on the ISS in November 2020. It is hoped that a wider variety of produce, including peppers and root vegetables, will be cultivated in the near future. However, a consistent source of protein and carbs will be necessary for longer missions to the Moon or Mars.

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Mizuna mustard greens are growing aboard the International Space Station to demonstrate the feasibility of space agriculture to provide fresh food for crews on deep space missions. The plants are grown under red-to-blue lighting and watered in pillows rather than soil in a specialized botany facility called VEGGIE. Courtesy of NASA

“The general rule is fast growing compact plants are easier than plants requiring large amounts of space,” says Newman, who believes a good source or carbs could be potatoes, lentils and rice. “Protein is surprisingly easier to produce than carbs. We can create plant-based protein from mycelium (fungus) or even soy, which is the easiest approach. However, we can also use precision fermentation in which tailored yeasts and fungus express proteins, such as dairy proteins – this technology exists at scale already on Earth.”

An example of what’s currently possible is provided by InFynity. The Chicago-based company is producing high protein foods using microbial biomass grown in a novel bioreactor. Nolux, too, is creating plant and fungal-based food through the use of artificial photosynthesis, while Kernel Deltech in Florida is working on the production of inactivated fungal biomass using a continuous cultivation technique. All three recently received $20,000 from the Deep Space Food Challenge jointly organized by NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. 

“We also believe that algae production via a photobioreactor will play a large part in the overall life support system, particularly with atmospheric revitalization,” says Herbert. “Algae has a high protein content and is completely edible when dried. The use of insects in a closed environment for reducing the mass of green organic waste items (i.e. food scraps and inedible biomass) has also been postulated as an effective tool in space habitats. Insects are also very high in protein and their consumption feeds into this circularized material loop that we require to sustain humans away from Earth.”

The Vegetable Production System (“VEGGIE”) is a container used for growing plants on the ISS. Courtesy of NASA

There is also much excitement around seeds. Space mutagenesis, which relates to the inducing of mutations in seeds that are sent into space (mutations that can create new, more resilient and productive varieties of key agricultural crops), has already led to new varieties of wheat. China’s wheat strain Luyuan 502, for example, was bred from seeds flown into orbit and is more resistant to drought and has a stronger resilience to common wheat pests. This is already benefiting farmers on Earth. 

NASA, meanwhile, is working to produce seeds that can thrive better in space. In November last year, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 landed at the Kennedy Space Center after spending 908 days in low Earth orbit. Onboard was a small package containing a variety of plant seeds. Those seeds included mizuna mustard, pak choi, lettuce, tomato, radish, chilli pepper, Swiss chard, onions, dwarf rice, dwarf wheat and cucumber. The mission’s goal? To find out what happens to seeds when they are exposed to different kinds of space radiation over a long period of time. 

As we move further into the solar system it is possible that “we will develop new cuisines, new flavors, and new ways of eating”, believes Newman, with the caveat that humans will have to survive as a species first. What is certain, however, is that advances in food and plant science will not only enable deeper exploration of space, but will directly impact life here on Earth. “I want to see the day when there’s a totally regenerative system producing food – not just agriculture, but different types of alternate meats – in a closed environment with minimal energy usage,” says Herbert. “This system will be totally automated and can be used here on Earth, on the Moon, or any planet. I want to see that kind of system. My dream is that one day nobody on Earth or in space will have to worry about food.”   

Quelle: WIRED
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