At the moment, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are totally dependent on supplies sent up from Earth to live in space. Each day, crew members require around 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of water, food and air; over time, this accumulates to a huge amount of cargo, which of course costs a considerable amount of money to transport up there.
But if it were possible to grow plants on the station, cosmonauts would have a supply of fresh food and air, which would reduce the burden of shuttling provisions to them. That’s why scientists in Norway are now embarking on a 10-year research project which aims to investigate how food crops grow in space, and whether they could realistically contribute a meaningful, long-term supply of food and oxygen to space travelers. Ultimately, this work could lay the foundations for investigating the feasibility of cultivating crops on the moon and Mars in the future, but that’s a long way off yet.
The new project, TIME SCALE, will be led by Ann-Iren Kittang Jost, research manager at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Space (CIRiS) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, in collaboration with the European Space Agency. This research unit has already been directing plant experiments aboard the ISS since 2006, but the work has focused on the model flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana. These experiments have been carried out on one of the ISS’s modules, the European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS), which is helping scientists understand plant biology in microgravity conditions.
For the new project, the module will be upgraded so that it is suitable for the newly planned experiments on crop plants. The scientists aren’t sure which plants they will attempt to cultivate, but lettuce, cherry tomatoes and soybeans have been discussed. The conditions aboard the ISS are very different to those on Earth, so scientists need to work out how to keep the plants happy in this new environment.
“One of the big challenges is to administer exactly the right amount of water and nutrients to the plants in such little gravity,” Kittang Jost explains to Science Nordic. Furthermore, because there are no currents of air in space, the scientists need to ensure that air is sufficiently circulated around the plants to prevent them from constantly “breathing” the same air.
NASA is also investigating the feasibility of growing crops in space, and is currently studying the performance of a new expandable plant growth chamber, Veggie, which is destined for the ISS. This investigation, which has been called “Veg-01,” will focus on the growth and development of lettuce seedlings in the spaceflight environment.
Ultimately, the dream is to be able to have a closed system aboard the ISS which would see water, nutrients, air and waste recycled in a viable ecosystem. The idea is that astronauts would eat food grown in space, and the resulting waste would be turned into fertilizer for the plants, which will in turn create oxygen and more food. The feasibility of such a system is currently being investigated by the ESA, who hope to have a functional closed system in space by the middle of the century.