To Infinity and Beyond
With Elon Musk launching returning rockets and sending cars into space, it no longer seems to be a question of if but when humans will touch down on the red planet, Mars. To do so would not only require the power to physically push a human-bearing capsule 54.6 million kilometers, it would also require us to find a way to allow humans to sustain themselves on the long journey, and then on the surface once they land. The question of how humans can sustain themselves with in outer space with renewable food sources is not a new question. In fact, NASA has been working on the problem since 2002 with an experiment known as “Lada Validating Production Unit – Plants, Protocols, Procedures, and Requirements”. The experiment was commissioned in order to find ways to reduce the amount of food that was required to be brought into space. The objectives of the experiment include finding out which plants can be consumed safely when grown in space, how produce can be sanitized after production, and how to optimize yield relative to resources used to grow the plants.
The Lada Validating Production Unit is on the International Space Station, which orbits the earth, but there are now plans for “deep-space” horticulture. Hopeful scientists hope that innovations in space horticulture will allow humans to create a renewable source of food on Mars. Dr. Ray Wheeler is one of such scientists. Dr. Wheeler heads the Advanced Life Support Research activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Program at Kennedy Space Center and believes it is possible for us to grow sustainable food sources on Mars and perhaps even beyond.
Lighting the Way
The essentials of growing plants remains the same on Mars as it is on earth. Soil, water and light are all necessary components. Getting sunlight poses difficulties on mars that do not exist on earth. For example, dust storms have been known to block out sunlight. And further, Mars in general only receives 43% of the sunlight that Earth receives since it is further from the sun. In order to mitigate these issues and get the correct amount of light to plants on Mars, scientists like Dr. Wheeler have been experimenting with some pretty revolutionary solutions. Currently, the LVPU uses blue and red LED light. These spectral ranges have been known for a long time to be of great importance in plant development since it is at these wavelengths that plants reflect the least, and therefore absorb the most, light. Wheeler believes that artificial LED light may be the solution to the future of plant growth in deep space. It’s no surprise that the Kennedy Space Center was one of the first places in the world to successfully implement vertical farming using LED lighting.
Food grown for consumption in space not only has to be fruitful with high yields, but also has to taste good. Wheeler comments that food that no one wants to eat will not be helpful in deep space travel. LED lighting has been able to help in both fields. Poor lighting has been known to create worse flavour in produce. Using a strong LED light in space will allow astronauts to ensure that their food grows large and tasty!
Impacting Mother Earth
Private enterprise is also providing valuable insights into how plants can be grown in space. Even when trying to produce plants on earth, the technology that is developed in pursuit of profit can be beneficial for those attempting to explore deep space. For example, Agrilution has been able to develop a product called the Plantcube which allows plants to be grown in a tiny space. It is equipped with LED lights, has automated watering and fertilization, and lets users monitor the plants in real time. This technology could look similar to the technology that will eventually be found in Mars colonies. The opposite has also occurred in which technology originally made for space travel has been useful in crop cultivation on earth. Using LED lights, wheat can be grown at speeds much faster than what would occur naturally with only sunlight. This process is known as “speed breeding” and offers hope of alleviating some of the pain of droughts.
Horticulture in space appears to be the future for sustaining humans as we go into deep space. The exploration and eventual colonization of Mars will require us to find a way to create renewable food sources for human consumption. As technology evolves, and techniques get perfected, there is no telling what innovations await us to be used both in space and here on earth. It is clear that no matter what those innovations are, the importance of light science in them cannot be doubted.