“We’re trying to create a small agricultural center in space,” explains Bryan Onate, manager of the project Advanced Plant Habitat (APH). In orbit kilometers from Earth, NASA and the astronauts of the ISS launched a crazy project in 2014: growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables in zero gravity. After initial tests with the incubator VEGGIE between 2014 and 2017, the orbital growing room APH has allowed them to make new progress and to now claim encouraging results. One imagines, in the near future, the large-scale development of space agriculture inside our spaceships.

Zero gravity planting

As we prolong the duration of our missions, feeding astronauts has become a veritable job for space agencies. They’ve begun searching for solutions to feed their members, and growing cultures inside the spaceships themselves has appeared to be the most durable solution. Cultivating a garden in zero gravity providesa healthy and fresh alternative to freeze-dried food that astronauts are used to. It also provides new resources, given that a passenger needs to consume five kilos of food per day. What’s more, some cultivated foods would preserve astronauts’ health: chlorophyll, for example, protects against certain radiations.

It has also been proven that consuming natural foods has a psychologically positive effect on astronaut morale, which changes daily in an extreme environment — results that could greatly impact the future of space exploration.

How does it work?

The first space incubator, VEGGIE, was developed by the company ORBITECH. Put under luminous diodes, in a kind of closed room, the plants receive all the necessary elements for growth through tubes. Gioia Massa, the project manager, described VEGGIE in 2014 as the “biggest device ever designed to grow vegetables in space.” But the delivery of the APH, in March 2017, has made it even better.

Unlike VEGGIE, which demanded permanent attention, the APH operates mostly autonomously. The room, about the size of a minifridge, is lit perpetually by an improved LED system, while a hydraulic loop hydrates the plants according to their needs. The 180 sensors of the system PHARMER then watches and adjusts characteristics of the room, such as temperature, light or humidity – all in order to create the best possible conditions for growth.

Growing in microgravity

On Earth, all plants are subject to gravitational force, which is no longer the case when it arrives in space. Microgravity influences the viability of its seeds, and can complicate their growth in the ships. The first space tests will allow NASA to evaluate the impact of the phenomenon based on several factors, like the development of roots or of pollen. And thanks to the APH’s advanced sensors, scientists at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center are able to access the APH’s habitat data in real time.

“We’re in the process of learning how plants grow in space and what levels of products like light and water are needed for them to maximize their growth with the least possible resources,” explains manager Bryan Onate. They’re hoping to soon understand the effects of gravity in order to grow cultures on longer missions to Mars or toward farther galaxies.

Encouraging first results

Thanks to the VEGGIE station, salads, flowers, and cabbages have been able to grow in space, then to be harvested and eaten by astronauts. The APH’s progress, however, is even more encouraging. In a time-lapse video posted by NASA on Wednesday April 11, 2018, you can see the spectacular growth of dwarf wheat andarabidopsis plants in recent months. And as Bryan Onate says on NASA’s site: “It’s the first real attempt to study agricultural cycles in space. […] Not only can we get small plants to grow, but we’ll also be able to grow seeds to sow them.” According to him, a single seed from Earth could thus give birth to an entire line of “space plants.”

And that’s not all: better understanding the growth of vegetables in the extreme conditions of space environments could one day improve our own cultures on Earth. All this progress makes one imagine that the final frontier of agriculture, space, could be definitively crossed in the next few years.