Written By Andrew Carter
We’re facing an agricultural revolution. Not one bound by soil, gravity, atmosphere, or anything else on earth, but one with the capability of reaching the farthest reaches of outer space. We’re talking about interstellar agriculture.
Well, let’s not get too far.
As our society gets closer and closer to colonizing other planets in our solar system, we need better ways of growing food in typically unappealing conditions. We’ve figured out how to grow on roofs, underground, and at sea , to name a few feats, but we’re still scrambling to develop a reliable method in growing plants in the situations we’ll find in space, on Mars, or beyond.
If anything is getting us closer it’s hydroponic agriculture. NASA produced many of the major achievements in the hydroponic field in the 80’s and 90’s to solve many of these specific problems. Here are a few to consider.
Space travel is expensive. Currently we rely on fossil fuels to transport objects into orbit and beyond. Although, while in space, we can rely on physics wizardry and gravitational assists, fuel still gets us there and is an integral part of mobility. Because of this, every ounce we put into space costs a lot of money. Not only is soil heavy, but it can potentially carry pathogens or unwanted bacteria into space, causing crop issues, or worse, contamination of a distant planet. Hydroponics allows us to ship seeds, water (which can also be made from a reclamation system), and nutrients, and lowers the weight to get the plants into space while also being extremely sanitary.
Plants, as we know them, have evolved on earth. They have needs that are obvious to anyone with basic biology education, like CO2, water, and nutrients, but did you know plants require gravity to grow, at least how you physically picture them? Roots growing downwards, stems growing upwards, gravity is one of the major factors causing all this.
Scientists are figuring out how to convince plants to grow as if affected by constant gravity. Aeroponic systems allow for optimal nutrient uptake at the roots in this type of system, since they don’t need the roots to be in any specific place.
In certain ways, growing in space may seem like a dream as far as solar radiation is concerned. Astronauts aren’t limited by skyscrapers or weather, and depending on where you are you may be able to get much, much more sunshine than you’d get on Earth. In reality, some of these aspects are absolutely necessary for plant success. Our atmosphere blocks out harmful UV rays from the sun, which not only affects humans, but plants as well. Through genetic engineering and high tech environmental controls, astronauts can simulate lighting and other environmental aspects from earth.
Water is considered by many to be an abundant resource in space. We haven’t figured out a good way in harvesting it, or even getting to it, but eventually we’ll have it at our disposal. Until then, though, it’s just another heavy material to bring with us into orbit and beyond. We need to figure out every way of conserving water in space, like humidity capture, wastewater sterilization, and water sensitive agriculture. Hydroponics by nature is water conservative. With the correct systems in place hydroponics uses a fraction of conventional, soil-based agriculture, which is why it’s perfect for this application.
Farming is intense. Soil farming requires soil chemistry maintenance, harvesting, lifting, and a whole slew of jobs that make it absolutely difficult to manage. Plus, farmers need to be able to notice deficiencies or health issues with their plants and make decisions on the spot, or else lose a whole crop. Many hydroponic systems, due to their recirculating systems and nutrient controls, are much more prone to automation and robotics. We already have the technology to allow us to grow almost completely autonomously, even to a point where we can send systems into space ahead of astronauts, so a salad can be waiting for them when they land.
At this point we haven’t completely figured out how to feed these plants. Currently, general hydroponics requires nutrients from a whole slew of different sources, from mines in Chile to bat guano from Jamaica. Although these materials are much lighter than soil and can be flown for short-term experiments, permanent colonies need a whole different source for nutrients. Companies like Re-Nuble have figured out ways to repurpose food waste into stable nutrient solutions, which is the closest earthbound option we’ve found as of yet. How it’ll proceed in the future, only time will tell.
In the end, agriculture in space is happening and will be a successful colonization of other planets is contingent on it. There are many hurdles to overcome, but hydroponic methods are making it more and more feasible.
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