The ISS astronauts already have a device capable of growing lettuce and flowers, but a new system will soon arrive in addition to set up a long experiment which will be used to develop a solution for feeding the crews during future long-duration space missions.
Take the case of the planet Mars, which is at the heart of several exploration and colonization projects. Such a trip would last two years taking into account the round trip and a few weeks spent there. Humanity will then surely want to go even further in the future and the journeys will certainly last longer.
Obviously, within the framework of such projects, the question of food is precious and is the subject of arduous research. There is also no question of forcing crews to ingest sachets of freeze-dried food for months or years. The solution is therefore found: grow plants and eat fresh fruits after cooking them.
However, this is easier said than done since growing fresh produce in microgravity is complicated even if the nutritional value of this potential food is of great importance. Experiments are underway and the International Space Station acts as an incubator to understand whether it will be possible to integrate the gardening solution into future long-duration space missions.
The Veggie device therefore currently equips the ISS, and has been since 2015. This has already made it possible to germinate lettuces and flowers as well as cabbage very recently. Tastings were attempted by the astronauts who found nothing to complain about, which bodes well for the future!
Precisely, the next step in the development of space agriculture is already planned: the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH). It is a germination and growth module that will be delivered to the ISS during the next launch of the Orbital ATK resupply cargo ship which will take place on March 19, 2017.
Unlike the Veggie system which requires continuous monitoring, the APH will not need as much attention. Indeed, only the installation of the device and a few rare maintenance operations will be sufficient as well as a light maintenance of the plants. The APH is a kind of large rectangular box with a side of 50 centimeters consisting essentially of a growth chamber lit by a system of 3-color LEDs. The water supply is provided by a hydraulic loop operating in a closed circuit. No less than 180 sensors will be responsible for managing the environmental parameters, which will allow a multitude of experiments and a wide choice of varieties.
“We are learning how plants grow in space and what levels of products, such as light and water, are needed so that we can maximize growth with the least amount of resources,” explains Bryan Onate, project manager at NASA.
The first of these experiments, named PH.01, will last 135 days. It involves germinating seeds of Arabidopsis, a short flowering plant similar to mustard, highly prized by biologists. The controls of the APH device will be done remotely from the Kennedy Center in order to require as little effort as possible from the astronauts who will be busy with many other tasks.
Sources: Science & Future – Space Flight insider