Salad in deep space: Robot gardeners to grow food for astronauts aboard spacecraft

NASA is looking to university students to help find solutions for feeding astronauts on long space missions, with promising results.

Students at the University of Colorado Boulder designed a growing system that uses robots to cultivate and harvest plants during deep-space explorations.

The project, titled “Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces”, places plants throughout the spacecraft rather than utilising a designated area for growing. According to the researchers, this method optimises the tiny space available within the ship.

The vegetation is housed in small hydroponic growing chambers called SmartPots that contain computers and sensors to keep track of each plant’s development, including air and water temperature, pH levels and responses to lighting and humidity.

Each chamber communicates its plant’s conditions to a remotely-operated gardening rover (ROGR), which moves around the cabin responding to the system’s commands for water or other needs.

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The ROGR robots can also harvest the fruits and vegetables. If an astronaut wants to make a salad, the growing system determines the plant with the best, ripest vegetables and tells the robot to collect them.

The SmartPots and gardening robots do most of the work in the system so that astronauts can focus on other tasks during their mission.

Besides supplying food for physical health, the growing system and its “plants anywhere” concept could help astronauts maintain their mental health as well.

“We want to optimise a system allowing the humans to get psychological benefits from interacting with the plants,” said Heather Hava, a member of the UC Boulder team. “We also want the plants to be in the astronauts’ environment so they can see them, smell them and be around them. Who doesn’t love to pick a fresh strawberry?”

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The project is part of the eXploration HABitat Academic Innovation Challenge, an initiative from NASA that asks teams of university students to develop new systems for use in space travel.  By engaging students, NASA hopes to encourage interest in deep-space exploration so that ideas and designs continue to improve.

The exploration of Mars continues to be a hot topic, and this growing system could provide astronauts with the sustenance they need to make the long journey there.

Robotically-controlled gardens could even give insight into how we would grow food for a Mars colony, as plants are able to flourish in treacherous environments thanks to the hydroponic chambers. While powdered space foods might have a longer shelf life, eating fresh fruits and vegetables as we explore the unknown terrain of a faraway planet sounds much more appealing.


Featured image is a screenshot from Elysium (2013), body images courtesy of NASA/ Bob Granath.


Space elevators “could be built cost-effectively within a century”, says expert

The creation of space elevators is getting closer to reality and could enable cheaper space travel, a leading engineering expert has said.

Peter Debney, a leading engineer at global construction and design firm Arup has said the devices, which would make space far more accessible, could be built cost-effectively within 100 years.

The idea of a space elevator – a transportation system that would use a cable to move people between Earth and space – has seen much speculation for years but the potential is now only starting to be realised.

Previous predictions have said the elevators could be built as soon as 2035 but these would be hugely expensive and not cost effective – as many prototypes are.

However, writing on the company’s website, Debney said those that are practical to build could be just round the corner: “Space elevators are a permanent infrastructure that will reach from the ground to high orbit.

“I believe that they could be built cost-effectively within a century, and pay for themselves within just a few years.

“While we have not quite got all the technology in place, and there are still engineering challenges to be overcome, the space elevator has nearly arrived.”

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He said introducing space elevators, while having a large initial cost, would be cheaper than regularly launching rockets into orbit.

“An elevator should reduce the cost of getting into space to about $220/kg for an estimated build cost of $20 billion.

“It is difficult to predict how much of a difference a reduction of two orders of magnitude on the launch costs will make to the space industry and society, but it is likely to be as significant.

“Today the aerospace industry carries over three billion passengers and $6 trillion of goods a year. This means that the cost of a space elevator is about the same as one day’s air freight.

“The space industry has already given us countless improvements to our lives, from small ones like Velcro and non-stick frying pans, to much bigger ones like global weather forecasting and satellite navigation.

“Cheap space flight would accelerate this innovation, and bring even more benefits in the form of lunar and asteroid mining, as well as an expansion of the human race comparable to our ancestors first leaving Africa or the discovery of America.”

Google X, the company’s experimental division, has been looking at how viable space elevators are, among other ambitious projects, and thinks they will soon be possible.

In an interview with Fast Company earlier this year the team from the research lab confirmed they had thought through making a space elevator.

However, at present the technology to build one does not quite exist.

To be able to build an elevator, in theory at least, we need to be able to manufacture a material that is significantly stronger than any form of steel that exists at the moment.

The one potential solution which has been touted is using carbon nanotubes but, as Google confirmed, it has not been possible to manufacture a carbon nanotube strand longer than a metre.

There will naturally be many more construction challenges that need to be solved before we are able to create a space elevator but the general support for the elevators will mean that when the time comes considerable resources will be put into lifting us into space.