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.


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