We grow crops in space to better food industry on Earth
NASA has been committed to growing crops in space, aiming to make breakthroughs in biotechnology and ecology so that human beings can be better prepared for growing crops on Moon or Mars.
CELSS, short for Controlled Environment and Life Support System, was a project carried out by NASA in Florida back in 1990s, testing if it was feasible to create a sustainable system in which plants provided sufficient oxygen, drinkable water and food for human beings.
Not far away from the system, a 113-sqm grow room had been in operation for nearly 10 years. Wheat, soybean, lettuce, potato, rice and other plants were being cultivated. People were amazed to find that the yield of wheat was four times of the world record at that time; the potato yield was two time of the world record and the time between seeding and harvesting was 2/3 of the conventional method; the lettuce was mature enough to be harvested just 28 days after seeding. NASA scientists provided optimal temperature, relative humidity, CO2 concentration, nutrient, and lighting recipe for the plants, utilizing these factors in a continuous hydroponic loop. What needs to be noticed is that the experiment was implemented on a four-layer grow system, which would probably make this project the first vertical farm in the world.
However, we also learned the limits in traditional horticultural lighting. The heat generated by the light source was overwhelming not only for plants but also the researchers. Glass, which was part of the lighting fixture, may break easily after a long-term use, causing a safety hazard. So NASA looked at LED for a change, and used it in 1994 to grow the first LED-nurtured crops. LED has been adopted as the grow lights ever since. In the grow rooms up in ISS, LED is powering the photosynthesis of fruits and vegetables, which are provided for astronauts.
NASA’s commitment has also changed the way we grow food here on Earth.
As the world population has been growing and is expected to exceed 9 billion in 2050, utilizing less arable land and less water in adverse environment to grow more food needs to be addressed. The farming method proven in space can be part of our solution.
Now we’re seeing large-scale vertical farms or plant factories being built in city centers or suburbs. They are using LED grow lights to empower the growth of vegetables and fruits. The best part about vertical farming or plant factory is that it’s using less water to produce more nutritious and pesticide-free products. The farming procedure takes place within a building, independent from local climate, so the food production is as continuous as 365 days/year.
As we’re getting closer to sending people to Mars, creating a sustainable system that supports life in a foreign planet can’t be more crucial.
The first man to land on Mars is still alive and living among us. We’re growing food in space to better food industry on Earth.