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Farming the Final Frontier: The Race To Grow Plants in Space


Hollywood isn’t always known for its scientific accuracy, especially when it comes to movies about space. However, with NASA setting its sights on returning to the moon, sometimes a movie can be the best place to take inspiration from. Having watched ‘The Martian’, Dr Wieger Wamelink, a senior ecologist at Wageningen University in the Netherland, is one of a number of scientists attempting to understand how to grow plants in space. 

In the movie, botanist Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is left stranded on Mars and is forced to survive on the hostile red planet. To do so, Damon channels the spirit of MacGyver and creates a climate-controlled dome, burns hydrazine to make water and creates a viable growth medium from Mars dust supplemented by his crewmates’ faeces to grow vegetables. While it may seem improbable, Dr Wamelink, decided to see if it could really be done. “The Martian? That’s my favourite movie!” he exclaims.

In fact, Dr. Wamelink’s interest in growing plants in space predates the Hollywood movie. He has been conducting experiments to grow plants in space since 2013. At that time, many of his colleagues considered his work to be a bit fringe. However, things changed once the movie was released in 2015. When he saw the film he was actually fairly impressed with the science they based it on. “The journey to Mars takes half a year, so store all your poo and pee. That’s your starter kit, what you need to get started in the soil. Actually, The Martian is totally correct there. It may be smelly, but it’s so important.

An illustration by Wageningen University of what life on Mars would look like. Source: Wageningen University

A Successful Test (On Earth)

Before he settled in his current field the 53-year old academic found that he was constantly passed over for research grants. Rather than being disheartened, Dr Wamelink had kept on submitting proposals until an idea struck him in the shower. Inspired by Star Trek, Dr Wamelink decided he wanted to research food production in space. His new proposal was titled – a theoretical study into growing plants on the Moon and on Mars, and to his relief, the university-sanctioned €25,000 for his study. 

For their growing medium, the team used soil simulants made by NASA, which replicate the soil of the moon and Mars. The Mars soil simulant came from a volcano on Hawaii while the moon soil simulant from an Arizonian desert. In 2013, he first attempted to grow garden cress. He did not have very high expectations, especially as the soil simulant was rich in toxins like mercury, lead and zinc. However, to Wamelink’s great surprise, the cress grew and, crucially, the plant did not take up the toxins, something he hadn’t expected at all. 

Dr Wieger Wamelink. Source: Wageningen University

In the years since Wamelink and his team have learned to refine the process by adding more organic matter like grass and worms. Given the harsh conditions of the red planet (the temperature is typically around -60C), growing plants on the surface is out of the question. Like Damon’s character, Dr Wamelink and his team had to build a special climate-controlled dome for their experiments. In an interview with StraitsTimes, he said: “We assume that plants will be grown indoors and below ground, in a kind of Hobbit home, and light is provided by LED lights and solar panels on the surface.” In 2016, the team managed to successfully harvest 10 different crops in their simulation of Mars-like conditions. 

The Race Began with Eggs

When I started the experiment I was in contact with Nasa and other space agencies, but the general idea was: ‘Food? Yeah, you just bring it along,’” Dr Wamelink told The Guardian. Growing food was never really a priority for space missions. One of the first attempts occurred in 1979 when Soviet cosmonauts aboard Soyuz 32 attempted to hatch Japanese quail, with no success. The first success came in 1990 when a single egg hatched aboard the Mir space station, becoming the first egg to successfully hatch in space

In an interesting but little known adjunct to the space race between the USA and Soviets, NASA had in 1986 sent 12 fertilised eggs aboard the Challenger space shuttle. Unfortunately the experiment by John Vellinger, a middle schooler in Indiana, never made it to space as the Challenger exploded a minute after liftoff. NASA tried again in 1989 aboard the Discovery. Unfortunately for NASA, the eggs hatched only when the Discovery returned to Earth, giving the Soviets an unlikely win in the space race. 

Turning To Plants

With trips to the moon, and Mars now becoming a reality, the race for space-grown food has heated up. Dr Gioia Massa, a plant scientist at Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center said: “These things that were really far out are now coming closer. And you can’t just turn these things on overnight. You have to start testing in advance for when we go there.

Unlike animals, plants seem to be better adapted to grow in space. Since 2014, NASA has got very serious about tackling the problem of growing plants in space. It has set up a Vegetable Production System nicknamed Veggie, which is designed to test a simple low-power solution to grow vegetables aboard the ISS. The Veggie garden is about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage and typically holds six plants. Each plant grows in a “pillow” filled with a clay-based growth media and fertilizer. To date, Veggie has successfully grown three types of lettuce, Chinese cabbage, mizuna mustard, red Russian kale and zinnia flowers.

Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor harvests red Russian kale and dragoon lettuce from Veggie on Nov. 28, 2018. Credits: ESA/Alexander Gerst

Some of the plants have been served up to the astronauts aboard the ISS but most are sent back to Earth for further analysis. Massa has said: “Veggie is a passive system, and it requires a lot of astronaut time to add water and guessing how much water to add. So we’re walking this tightrope between a flood and a drought, and we fall off a lot.” Which is why NASA developed the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), an upgrade to Veggie that is enclosed and much more automated with cameras and more than 180 sensors that are in constant contact with a team back at the Kennedy Space Centre. 

As the interest in the human exploration of celestial bodies grows so does the innovation. Dr Wamelink’s latest idea is about getting pollinators into space, to help plants grow in a more natural way. He likes bumblebees (which could hibernate for the journey) and flies, which could also be a source of protein if astronauts are happy to eat the larvae. He’s even been looking into human urine, purified, as a potential source of fertiliser.

Based on a story at The Guardian

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