Food and the Final Frontier: How Researchers Intend to Grow Plants in Space

It’s all about Point A and Point B, staying alive while traveling massive distances and remaining alive once you reach your destination—say Mars or other as-yet-undiscovered sites in the solar system.

According to the Universe Today, depending on orbital rotation, the average distance between Earth and Mars is approximately 140 million miles. Even traveling at well over 35,000 miles per hour, such a trip could take up to eight months. Hence, the need for the Mars-Lunar Greenhouse project at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center in Tucson, a fully functional prototype greenhouse that has been growing crops for years under the auspices of a NASA Steckler Space Grant collaboration.

The edibles—everything from strawberries to sweet potatoes, peanuts, and peppers—are of the type that could grow on a trip to the moon or the Red Planet. They’re housed inside a large cylinder that would ride along with either robots or astronauts on their extended journey.

Because a hydroponic system and a controlled-environment grow area can provide yields of up to 10 times higher than an open field, feeding a crew of space explorers for months on end isn’t just science fiction. That kind of ingenuity is already being applied to earthbound applications, such as enhancing global food security and providing fresh, locally grown food to large urban centers.

Food and the Final Frontier: How Researchers Intend to Grow Plants in Space

“Growing ‘Martian food’ is our day job,” says horticultural engineer Gene Giacomelli, co-principal investigator for the grant that reached a tentative terminus last month. “At some point, people will travel to, live, and work on another planet, and when they do, they’ll need to grow their own food. That’s what we do here every day.”

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