The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is one of the space agencies working on automated and AI farming techniques for the coming era of interplanetary human colonies.
Whether from continent to continent or from coast to coast, people have always made great strides together with plants. Traveling away from Earth would be no different. Our success in other worlds will be based in part on the supple plant stems.
“Plants are things that we take with us as explorers,” says Anna-Lisa Paul, co-director of the Space Plants Lab at the University of Florida. “They are part of our core heritage, whether we think of them or not.”
On all the short forays into space, the astronauts have so far almost exclusively fed on packaged food. But if humans ever hope to build long-term habitats on the Moon or Mars, their physical and mental health would benefit from the ability to grow plants.
Space agencies from various countries have spent decades developing the technologies necessary to bring agriculture into the home, and now the German space agency and NASA are pushing the state of the art of soilless gardening to its limits with a greenhouse in Antarctica and relocation for their next act: farming systems where farmers are optional.
NASA, Soviets, and History of Indoor Farming Experiments
NASA has worked to advance space agriculture, in part because a sturdy collection of plants could serve as the ultimate multi-purpose life support system, producing calories and nutrients for food, making oxygen breathable, and removing carbon dioxide from the air.
Building on Soviet research, NASA funded a variety of agricultural programs in the 1980s and 1990s. In a collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, researchers discovered that they could replace hot and cumbersome incandescent light bulbs with a mix of LED lights. Red LEDs, which were more energy efficient, allowed plants to photosynthesize. But plants also need blue light, otherwise they would become too tall and spindly. The work resulted in a patent, and indoor farms today often feed plants on a similar diet of red and blue photons – which is why indoor farms often appear bathed in purple light.
“NASA was really at the forefront in this regard and encouraged their use for these applications,” says Raymond Wheeler, a horticultural scientist who has studied space agriculture at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for decades.
In the late 1980s, Wheeler was on a KSC team growing wheat, potatoes, soybeans, and other crops whose roots were dipped in a nutrient solution and stacked on four rows of shelves in a large cylindrical chamber – probably the first execution of a vertical one Agriculture System that has meanwhile developed into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Rows of produce are growing on the indoor farm Bowery Farming Inc. in Kearny, New Jersey, USA on Tuesday, August 7, 2018. The start-up leverages automation and space-saving vertically stacked plants for a year-round growing season meaning it’s much more productive per square foot than traditional farms.
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Indoor vertical farming companies have experienced a boom in recent years that focuses on sustainably meeting the ever-growing demand for food. New York-based startup Bowery Farming announced a $ 300 million financing round in June, the largest in the industry to date, valued at $ 2.3 billion. Kimbal Musk, brother of Elon Musk, is a co-founder of Square Roots. Newark-based AeroFarms broke ground in April for a 136,000-square-foot Virginia farm that is slated to open in 2022 and which it claims will be the largest indoor vertical aeroponic farm in the world.
Antarctic robots and crops for other worlds
The German Aerospace Center (DLR) sent two shipping containers to Antarctica in autumn 2017, which was tantamount to a remote dress rehearsal for the cultivation of crops on another world.
The EDEN-ISS Antarctic greenhouse, which is now entering its fourth growing season, continues to prove that you don’t need fertile soil or sunlight to produce vegetables. It builds on the LED mix developed by NASA’s early experiments to provide “recipes” tailored to the needs of each individual vegetable with programmable arrays of red and blue lights.
Roots poke through beds of fibrous minerals and dangle in empty bowls below, where automatic nozzles spray them with a nutrient-rich mist every few seconds. Most of the water is recycled, except when the nutrient solution is depleted and needs to be discarded and replaced every few months. The entire system is connected to the neighboring German research station Neumeyer III, from which it continuously draws around 10 kilowatts of electricity – comparable to eight US households.
In its first year, a DLR researcher named Paul Zabel ran the 135-square-meter greenhouse and collected almost 600 pounds of vegetables, including cucumbers, lettuce, other leafy vegetables, tomatoes, radishes and herbs.
But despite the greenhouse’s automated lighting, irrigation and fertilization systems, Zabel still spent three to four hours a day keeping the EDEN ISS running, says Schubert. And in space, human labor will be just as precious a resource as water and air.
According to Daniel Schubert, the project coordinator of the Antarctic experiment, an AI system that takes care of the greenhouse is preferred “if the astronauts simply don’t have time”.
This year NASA dispatched one of its own researchers, Jess Bunchek, to test the US space agency’s preferred varieties of space vegetables in EDEN-ISS. Another important research goal will be to collect detailed data on which tasks are taking the most time. Bunchek will carry an eight-page programmable timer that she will use to keep track of the hours she spends on eight categories of work.
One of the biggest time wasters was the repair of breakdowns or “extraordinary events” in the double sense of space exploration. For example, fixing a broken pipe can take all day. At the top of the list of lessons learned from EDEN-ISS is that future facilities must be simpler. âWe will definitely reduce the technological complexity for a space greenhouse,â says Schubert.
Space imaging for plant stress
Next in the pipeline, DLR is currently designing a new system – a semi-inflatable, space-suitable cylinder – with a few new tricks.
One improvement will be the extended remote monitoring. Anna-Lisa Paul and her colleagues from the UF Space Plants Lab are developing software that can take GoPro images and recognize how stress changes the appearance of a plant. When a plant needs water or has been exposed to too much salt, the colors of the light it absorbs and reflects change in a way that is imperceptible to the human eye. But the lab’s system can detect salt stress in just fifteen minutes and drought stress in about an hour, according to Natasha Sng, a researcher at the Space Plants Lab, much earlier than a human.
The researchers tested their system on the EDEN ISS, but the greenhouse ran too smoothly to know how well the surveillance system was working. “We have seen a lot of success,” says Robert Ferl, co-director of the Space Plants Lab.
Soon the researchers plan to introduce deliberate malfunctions and see if the laboratory’s system can intercept them.
In a further big step towards automation, the DLR is developing robot arms that are mounted on a rail hanging on the greenhouse roof. These nifty machines, powered by AI, would photograph the plants from different angles, prune dead leaves and shoots, and even harvest crops, which Schubert values ââas the most time-consuming activities after a repair.
The ultimate goal is a greenhouse that, while not fully autonomous, could at least be fully operated by operators on Earth. Such a facility could land in front of astronauts on the moon or Mars and hold a basket of cucumbers and tomatoes ready for their arrival. Astronauts would have the option of gardening, which can boost mental health, but the plants should be able to thrive on their own when astronauts have more pressing tasks.
The DLR roadmap stipulates that the next-generation facility will be ready to fly by 2030 [Elon] Musk emailed and asked if we can design his greenhouse, “said Schubert.
And developing the ability to farm in space isn’t just about flying to Mars. A one-way street has always linked space agriculture with industrial agriculture. As climate change makes many areas of the world less suitable for agriculture, the technology to separate food production from weather and natural resources is likely to become more important.
âIt would be my dream that we all live alone in ecological biosphere,â says Schubert. “We would be completely independent of planet earth and would leave the earth to itself so that it can recover.”