Spaceflight Insider

Where’s the Beef? NASA OA-7 mission takes a look at astronauts’ menu

This prototype of the Advanced Plant Habitat System illustrates the complex maze of sensors, heaters, water tubes, and lighting that comprise the NASA System of fast-growing plants in the microgravity of space. A more compact version of this prototype is on its way to the ISS aboard Orbital ATK's Cygnus spacecraft launched on April 18, 2017. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

This larger prototype of the Advanced Plant Habitat System illustrates the complex maze of sensors, heaters, water tubes, and lighting that comprise the NASA System of fast-growing plants in the microgravity of space. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — One of many challenges of long-duration space travel is storing the necessary food and other supplies. Without a way to replenish supplies, a mission to Mars would have to be self-sustaining. One way of reducing the very large amount of food required for such a trip would be to grow some of that food on the way.

It’s unlikely astronauts would raise their own cattle as a protein source. However, NASA has initiated several projects to study the possibility of growing plants in space, plants that would provide a portion of the proteins, nutrients, and carbohydrates needed by astronauts during a trip that would likely last for about two-and-a-half years.

This tray of microgreens grown in NASA's Advanced Plant Environment Research facility at the Kennedy Space Center reflects the typical varieties of crops that are expected to be harvested from special space-based agricultural chambers, such as the Advanced Plant Habitat System delivered to the ISS aboard Orbital ATK's CRS-7 spacecraft. Plants will grow either using hydroponics or, as shown here, a kind of clay pebbles called Florikan that contain controlled release fertilizers. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

This tray of microgreens in Florikan, grown in NASA’s Advanced Plant Environment Research facility at the Kennedy Space Center, reflects the typical varieties of crops expected to be harvested from special space-based agricultural chambers, such as the Advanced Plant Habitat System. Photo Credit: Jim Siegel / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA’s latest food-related initiative was launched on April 18, 2017, aboard the Orbital ATK OA-7 mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

That project, the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), exceeds in size and scope what is called the “Veggie” project, NASA’s initial fresh-food growth system already aboard the ISS.

According to Bryan Onate, NASA’s APH project manager, the new plant habitat is a fully enclosed, closed-loop system with an environmentally controlled growth chamber. It uses red, blue, and green LED lights as well as broad spectrum white LED lights.

The system’s more than 180 sensors will relay real-time information back to the Exploration Research and Technology Directorate team at the Kennedy Space Center, including temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels of the air and soil near the plant roots as well as at the stem and leaf level.

“A big difference in this system, compared to Veggie, is that it requires minimal crew involvement to install the science, add water, and perform other maintenance activities,” Onate told SpaceFlight Insider. “We are learning how plants grow in space and what levels of commodities, such as light and water, are required so we can maximize our growth with the least resources.”

Once aboard the ISS, the new habitat system will be activated by the astronauts but controlled by the team at Kennedy Space Center. The carefully controlled “NASA System” of lighting and humidity can often produce a crop yield in about a month – half or less of the time required in conventional farming on earth.

The lighting operates on a cycle of 16 hours on and 8 hours off, to simulate the day-night cycle on Earth. An active watering system with sensors will detect when the plants need water and keep water flowing as needed. Plants will grow either using hydroponics or a kind of clay pebbles called Florikan that contain controlled release fertilizers.

The initial crops will be Dwarf Wheat and Arabidopsis (often called rockcress) – small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard. They are members of a food class called microgreens, a type of plants that are best known as an ingredient used in fine dining restaurants to add visual appeal as well as flavor. In recent years, researchers have discovered that these tiny plants also pack a much higher nutritional punch that their larger, more mature counterparts.

Tara Ruttley, an ISS program scientist, said to not expect the space station astronauts to be consuming the resultant plants from APH anytime soon.

“The plants will be returned to Earth for detailed evaluation and analysis, just to make sure that they don’t contain any harmful micro-organisms,” Ruttley said. “But you’ll hear a big cheer from many of us the day that the astronauts first consume plants grown aboard the ISS.”

 

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Jim Siegel comes from a business and engineering background, as well as a journalistic one. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Michigan, and executive certificates from Northwestern University and Duke University. Jim got interested in journalism in 2002. As a resident of Celebration, FL, Disney’s planned community outside Orlando, he has written and performed photography extensively for the Celebration Independent and the Celebration News. He has also written for the Detroit News, the Indianapolis Star, and the Northwest Indiana Times (where he started his newspaper career at age 11 as a paperboy). Jim is well known around Celebration for his photography, and he recently published a book of his favorite Celebration scenes. Jim has covered the Kennedy Space Center since 2006. His experience has brought a unique perspective to his coverage of first, the space shuttle Program, and now the post-shuttle era, as US space exploration accelerates its dependence on commercial companies. He specializes in converting the often highly technical aspects of the space program into contexts that can be understood and appreciated by average Americans.

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