Space farming: how technology and innovation are helping grow vegetables in the space

It was 2014 when NASA officially decided to invest in astrobotany, that is the study of plants in space environments, by starting Project Veggie, aimed at improving space aeroponic agriculture. For those who don’t know what aeroponics is, it is an innovative technology that allows to cultivate in closed environments, without using soil. It is made possible thanks to special systems that consist of a load-bearing structure, mesh pots and air pumps that are used to spray on plants a liquid solution, made of water and fertilizers.

The prospect of the future colonization of other planets, as distant and sci-fi as it may seem, has prompted several countries to focus on space farming. Exploring distant worlds requires astronauts to live in space for a very long time. For a one-way trip to Mars, for example, it takes 5 to 6 months. In order for man to survive for all the time necessary for a colonization, three essential elements can not miss: air, water and food. The first two are already produced inside space stations, while the third still comes from Earth. But things are changing. The continuous researches and innovations in the field are starting to bear “fruits”.

In 2015, the International Space Station astronauts ate fresh vegetables grown in orbit for the first time, thanks to a system developed by NASA researcher, Gioia Massa, and the company ORBITEC. Romaine lettuce was placed inside a special greenhouse measuring only 30×36 centimeters and which was equipped with folding walls that increased the volume as the plants grew. This growth chamber was illuminated by LED lights in the colors of red, green and blue, which are those considered most effective for stimulating the growth of lettuce.

Meanwhile it has been recently reported that also radishes were grown and eaten in the space. The system known as Advanced Plant Habitat has in fact made it possible for 19 lush vegetables to grow in the small garden of the Space Station. Their entire growth phase was monitored by more than 180 sensors and cameras. Astronaut Kate Rubins even commented on the success saying that the radishes were “as tasty as the ones she had grown in her garden”. 

The latest innovation in the field of space farming comes from Russia, where they came up with the idea of a “vitamin space greenhouse”, which in Russian is Vitamìnnaja kosmìcheskaja oranzheréja. It is a structure made up of titanium tubes thanks to which vegetables could grow on a sort of conveyor belt. Inside the greenhouse, cultivation takes place using a six-module cyclic system. First the first module is sown, then after a few days the second one is sown and they go on like thiis until the sixth module. Once the harvest of the first module is mature, it is cut and new seeds are planted. Currently, it seems that this type of greenhouse is the one that produces the largest amount of vegetables.

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