Thursday, July 27, 2006

“Astroculture” - Space gardens


As civilization advances and populations grow, there is of course an ever increasing need to advance the frontiers of agricultural science in order to feed the worlds growing populations, and hopefully one day bring about an end to world hunger. Agricultural science continues to advance on many conventional fronts, but is also advancing in humanities final frontier – space. And while our immediate needs for advancing agricultural science is down to earth (feeding growing populations), our long term living requirements demand that we learn to develop plant-based life support systems in space, for food, oxygen and psychological benefits.

One day many people will call space their home and they can’t be expected to attain their food that was grown on Earth. The sooner we develop the means to sustainably grow food in space, the better of we will be – both for future residents of space, and current populations of hungry people.

Experimentation with growing plants in microgravity has always been an important objective of many space programs, with early experiments by the Russians proving the ease of off-world plant growth. Since then NASA has conducted experiments aboard the space shuttles and commercial experimentation began with growing plants on the International Space Station.

China has enjoyed success with astroculture, though not through experimenting specifically with growing plants in microgravity, but rather through experimenting with the mutation of plant seeds. The idea is to send a variety of plant seedlings into orbit in retrievable satellites, where the seeds are exposed to cosmic radiation resulting in mutation. China began these experiments in 1987 with more then 800 species of plant seeds [source], resulting in a number of high-yield crops being developed, including II Youhang 1, a super rice that produced a world record yield of 928.3kg per mu (1mu=0.0667ha). The rice is high quality as well as high yield, with “fine grain rate, whole grain rate, amylose, and protein, reach the top standards defined by the national criteria.”


Space-bred vegetables from the experiments tend to have a vitamin content that is 281.5 percent higher than ordinary vegetables, along with raised levels of the microelements ferrum, zinc and carotene.
So far, about 566,600 hectares of Chinese land have been planted with space-bred rice and wheat between 2001 and 2004, according to a government official. It has yielded an additional 340,000 tons of grain for the country.
[source]


China’s latest space project, the Shijian-8 satellite will carry more then 2000 varieties of plant seeds including fungi and sequenced molecular biomaterials.

Mutating seeds in space could help to undo the damage done to the DNA of modern produce through poor farming practices, and could result in higher quality and higher yield crops for the future.


Plant growth experiment on the ISS



NASA continues to research astroculture with its recent shuttle flight, studying plant roots and experimenting with varying arrangements of light sources. “The experiment is the third part of a comprehensive study of how crop yields could be increased for missions that could last many months or even years. Plants that will be used for food may well be used to filter spaceship air and produce oxygen.”

The European Space Agency is also performing research in this field with the European Modular Cultivation System designed for various biological experiments under microgravity. The EMCS will automatically perform experiments of seeds to later be returned to Earth for analysis, where plant germination, growth, curvature and DNA analysis will be studied. Insights gained from these experiments aim to help create sustainable plant-based life support systems for long space missions.

I suspect that astroculture has a bright future. It is already big business in China successfully helping to feed a massive and rapidly industrialising nation, and with the development of privatised space laboratories like we are seeing with Bigelow Areospace and others developing similar projects, there will be ample room in the near future for big developments in astroculture. It’s not hard to envision large inflatable orbiting laboratories being rented en mass by commercial agricultural groups seeking to take advantage of these recent developments.


Could space agriculture have a bright future?



Hat tip to Sebadoh’s blog at Really Rocket Science

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