Veggies In The Cosmos: Why Scientists Need To Grow Edible Plants In Space
Keen to promote agrarian revolution in space to ensure food sufficiency for astronauts on space missions, NASA has stepped up efforts to grow more plants and vegetables outside the Earth.
The sense of urgency is spawned by the upcoming space missions including a Mars mission.
The advantage of an accelerated food cultivation program will be keeping the astronauts healthy and inducing more self-sufficiency in food than bringing supplies from Earth.
Advanced Plant Habitat Program
In the latest supplies payload sent to the International Space Station, the Advanced Plant Habitat or APH experiment stands out as a prominent plant and vegetable cultivation program. Unlike previous projects, APH is seeing more volume and faster production of vegetables at the space station and aims to increase the share of food of space crew.
NASA's priority to raise plants in cosmic conditions has certainly moved to the next level.
Urgency Linked To Mars Expedition
NASA has dovetailed the human mission to Mars with a plan for developing a reliable food supply to sustain the crew for longer periods on the Red Planet.
Programs like APH are preparing the ground for growing vegetables outside the environment of Earth, noted Chris Wolverton, a professor of botany at Ohio Wesleyan University.
"In the near-term, most experts expect astronauts will take the food they need for basic sustenance with them from the Earth," said Wolverton who studies plant gravity with the backing of NASA.
The choice of leafy vegetables is unmistakable as they have been good at absorbing chemical elements and in producing vitamins to keep the crew healthy.
Changing Strategy In Programs
In fact, APH is an offshoot of NASA's own initiative Vegetable Production System, called Veggie, launched in 2015.
The Veggie program managed to produce lettuce successfully at the ISS as NASA's first food grown in space and which fed the astronauts.
However, APH differs from Veggies with its subdued reliance on enclosed plants while the latter was processing more unfiltered air inside the station.
The APH gives astronauts greater control of the growing chamber's environment as it is backed by many LEDs that emit white and infrared light to increase the output.
"It's really a way for the scientists to modify the environment: the light, the water, the atmosphere," said program manager Bryan Onate.
Perfecting Food Production Technology
The harvest of red romaine lettuce at the ISS in August 2015 was the culmination of efforts that involved simulation of the Martian soil to grow vegetables in near-zero gravity conditions.
Yet another experiment at Wageningen University showed that 10 crops can be grown on soil at conditions resembling Mars. The crops include pea, tomato, leek, rye, radish, spinach, garden rocket, cress, quinoa, and chives.
Meanwhile, potato has emerged as the best candidate for a possible crop that can be planted on Mars. This is because potato can thrive in harsh environments and deliver 10 percent of caloric needs of a person.
Collaboration is at work between scientists from the International Potato Center in Peru, NASA, and engineers at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima for conducting advanced experiments in growing nutrient-rich spuds at Mars-like conditions.
Potato Variant Suitable For Mars
Compared with Earth, Mars gets less sunlight. Therefore, temperature and pressure are lower than that on Earth.
Many variants of potatoes are under test for zeroing in on the best that can brave Martian conditions. That will help future astronauts to Mars to skip the effort at building warmer conditions equivalent to Earth.