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The Future of Hydroponics Through Technology

The Future of Hydroponics Through Technology

Throughout the years, NASA has developed wonders that have helped in our daily lives.  Whether it’s the aluminum foil used in cooking, titanium frames for eyeglasses, or the advancements in aerodynamics that have reduced fuel costs in trucking, NASA’s quest for reaching the stars has made our daily lives easier.  As part of their long term goals, NASA looks to farming as a way to save money on cargo loads to the International Space Station (ISS) and as a way to make a more self-sufficient station in space.  This race to the moon, Mars, and the frontier of space promises even more advancements in a technology that dates back to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The Challenges

Mars Desert Research Station
Mars Desert Research Station

Growing food in orbit or on other worlds is really hard.  For one thing, the sunlight that our plants – and us – are used to isn’t the same.  Mars is further away from the Sun so it doesn’t actually get the same intensity of light and heat we do.  Heat is also a major problem in space since you shouldn’t expose anything to direct sunlight without a protective cover of some kind (for example, a piece of metal in direct sunlight in space can reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit).

Space is vast and apparently limitless, except on a space station where weight and size requirements are closely monitored.  A single pound of food costs approximately $10,000 to lift up to the ISS.  And the size of the modules for the station are very small, meaning there isn’t much room to grow a garden with all the space a typical greenhouse can afford.

The effects of microgravity and air pressure are also important.  Gravity is a key trigger for telling a plant which way to grow.  Without at least a small amount of gravity, roots and steams have no guide for which way is “up.”  NASA resolved part of these issues through use of a centrifuge surrounding a light source, creating a mini-solar system of plants instead of planets.  Soil is also dangerous for microgravity since the tiny particles can clog airways and restrict all kinds of machinery.  Because of this, hydroponics has been at the forefront of research.

All of these problems, proper lighting, space and weight limitations, and the effects of free-fall or microgravity can negatively impact how a plant grows.  Again, growing plants in space is extremely difficult, which is why we’ve only begun to do so in the past few years.

The Current Experiments

Image used courtesy of NASA
Image used courtesy of NASA

After years of research and practice, NASA has successfully grown plants such as zucchini, broccoli, lettuce, and radishes aboard the ISS.  Their most recent experiment, Project VEGGIE, has sent radishes up to the station to test growing high calorie foods in orbit.  Fresh foods are a premium in space and most of their meals are freeze-dried and carefully rationed.  VEGGIE aims to build a bioregenerative system aboard the ISS.  In simpler terms, a system that helps to recycle carbon dioxide while generating food to make a more self-sufficient station.  This would allow astronauts to stay in space for longer duration missions while devoting less cargo space to oxygen and food calories.  The system itself keeps the plants within a tiny greenhouse with their root systems suspended in sealed “pillows” filled with a growing medium or nutrient solution.  The pillows are sealed an impermeable to control the flow of water.  Hydroponics or aeroponics systems mean less weight being placed on the station as well, making them preferable to standard soil-based growing systems.

But plant experiments don’t end there.  Projects like GreenHab at the Mars Desert Research Station seek to improve our understanding of how plants would grow on other worlds with different light and air-pressure conditions.  Even the soil is tested for viable plant growth.  Recently, simulated Mars and moon soil tests were run by scientists in Germany to show the viability of crop growth on those worlds.  Astoundingly, the Mars tests show that the soil there would be extremely beneficial to several different types of vegetable and grain crops.

The Benefits

So how is all of this going to help those of us trapped on the surface of this small blue sphere?  Plants grown aboard the ISS have very specific problems to overcome.  While we don’t have to worry about microgravity, the insights into plant biology can help improve growing conditions for plants.  More immediately, NASA’s research into which frequencies of light are most beneficial to plants can help improve crop yields.  While growing romaine lettuce, for example, NASA used bright-pink LED grow light to help improve their harvest.

Of all the advances in growth cycles and crop yields, maybe the best return from space farming will be new bioregenerative agriculture technologies. Hydroponics are already being used for vertical growth systems to help clean air around some skyscrapers in larger cities.  They can also help to clean and process water outside of a major sanitation facility.  If plants can be used to clean water and air, it will be a major benefit to cities dealing with both heavy pollution and expensive food imports.  After all, if you can grow your food in a skyscraper while making the city greener, who wouldn’t want that?

What do you think?  Will our foray into space be the key to cleaning up our home planet, or should we focus elsewhere?  Let us know in the comments, or send us a message through FacebookTwitterGoogle PlusLinkedIn, Pinterest, or Instagram!

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