Rice, tomatoes and radishes: who, what and how grows food in space

What is space farming?

Space farming refers to cultivation

crops for food and other materials in space or on astronomical objects outside the earth - equivalent to agriculture on Earth.

Farming on celestial bodies such as the Moon orMars has a lot to do with farming on a space station or in a space colony. But, depending on the size of the celestial body, the complexity of microgravity inherent in the latter may be absent.

Each environment will have different accessibilityresources for the process of space agriculture: inorganic material necessary for plant growth, soil environment, insolation, the relative availability of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and oxygen, and so on. Space farming.

How problems are there for space farming?

  • Microgravity

In low-earth orbit and potentialon colonial planets, gravity is less than we are used to. Weak gravity affects many features of the development of organisms, and plants are no exception. In experiments where the same crops were planted on Earth and on the ISS, some species in orbit lost noticeably in taste and nutritional value. For example, in the "space" embryos of the turnip Brassica rapa there was much less starch and protein (by 24%).

  • Disruption of heat transfer

This problem occurs if the enclosed space is poorly ventilated. At the same time, volatile organic substances accumulate around the plant, which can slow down its growth.

  • Radiation

Observations show that constant radiationcan cause DNA damage and mutations, and affect gene expression levels. Given all this, it is impossible to predict how the plants brought from Earth will change over time.

  • The soil

Our earthly soil, which gives life to plants, isa complex system where both minerals and organics are equally important. On Mars, for example, the situation is completely different. The surface of the Red Planet is covered with regolith - fine sand and dust that form when rocks are destroyed by wind, temperature fluctuations and meteorite impacts. This dust is not only lifeless, it is dangerous for plants: it contains toxic compounds, including perchlorates - salts of perchloric acid.

How to replace soil?

In April 2014, the Dragon SpaceX cargo shipdelivered the Veggie green plant to the International Space Station, and in March astronauts began testing the orbital plantation. The installation controls light and nutrient intake. In August 2015, the astronauts' menu included fresh herbs grown in microgravity.

When Veggie has served her, they plan to replace herthe larger plant is the fully automatic Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) greenhouse. It will be possible to regulate many parameters, including humidity, pressure, illumination, the volume of supplied oxygen and nutrients, and even measure the temperature of individual leaves.

In the Russian segment of the International Spacethe station operates a greenhouse "Lada" for the experiment "Plants-2". In late 2016 or early 2017, the Lada-2 version will appear on board. The Institute of Medical and Biological Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences is working on these projects.

How to grow plants in foreign soil?

Space crop production is not limitedexperiments in zero gravity. In order to colonize other planets, humans will have to develop agriculture on soil that is different from the earth, and in an atmosphere that has a different composition. In 2014, biologist Michael Mauthner grew asparagus and potatoes on meteorite soil. To obtain a suitable soil for growing, the meteorite was ground into powder.

By experience, he was able to prove that on the groundof extraterrestrial origin, bacteria, microscopic fungi and plants can grow. Most asteroid material contains phosphates, nitrates, and sometimes water.

  • Mars

In the case of Mars, where there is a lot of sand and dust,crushing of the rock is not required. But another problem will arise - the composition of the soil. There are heavy metals in the soil of Mars, the increased amount of which in plants is dangerous to humans. Scientists from Holland have mimicked Martian soil and have grown ten crops of several plant species on it since 2013.

As a result of the experiment, scientists found out thatthe content of heavy metals in peas, radishes, rye and tomatoes grown on simulated Martian soil is not dangerous to humans. Scientists continue to research potatoes and other crops.

Researcher Wager Wamelink inspects plants grown in simulated Martian soil. Photo: Joep Frissel / AFP / Getty Images

  • Moon

In the analogue of the lunar soil, scientists have already succeededsprout cotton, but the main problem is that no plant will survive during the lunar temperature drops. For example, at night on a satellite, the temperature can drop to -170 degrees.

So thanks to the Chinese apparatus "Chang'e-4",for the first time it was possible to grow a plant in conditions of lunar gravity: the seedlings produced cotton seeds. As part of the experiment, Chinese scientists used a sealed container with a special nutrient medium. In addition to cotton seeds, the seeds of potatoes, rapeseed and Tal's rezukhovidka were placed in it. Also, fruit fly larvae and yeast were used for the experiment.

How are the plants going to be grown in the future?

  • Hydroponics

With this method, plants grow in water.You can keep the roots in water constantly or use the ebb and flow technique, and also use a variety of substrates that hold the right amount of liquid.

  • Aeroponics

In this case, the plant roots are not in the water.or substrate while in the air. Sprayers are installed nearby, which from time to time envelop the roots with a light haze from tiny drops of nutrient solution. This is how plants receive both nutrition and sufficient oxygen.

  • Anthroponics

A source of water and fertilizer for hydroponicinstallations become crew wastes. Astronaut urine can become the basis of nitrogen fertilizers, such an experiment has already been carried out on Earth by Italian scientists.

Despite the promise of hydroponics, among scientiststhere are also supporters of gardening based on soil from other planets. Such experiments have been going on in the Netherlands since 2013. Biologists from the University of Wageningen grow vegetables in artificial soil, which is most similar in composition to regoliths from the surface of Mars and the Moon.

"Martian" soil is made from volcanicash and sand from Hawaii, and "lunar" - from desert sand in Arizona. To repeat the texture of the regolith, the material is additionally ground into dust. Scientists have already harvested more than a dozen harvests, in their grocery basket tomatoes, peas, radishes, rye, green onions and other plants.

Another bold idea is to change the Martianatmosphere using cyanobacteria (blue-green algae). These small organisms are capable of photosynthesis: it is believed that it was they who "breathed" a significant part of the oxygen that contributed to the "oxygen revolution" at the beginning of the Proterozoic. In 2018, an international team of scientists found that cyanobacteria can produce gas at very low light levels.

Recent achievements

Some of the seeds sprout in the ground labrice, who visited the moon as part of the Chang'e-5 mission. The Chinese automatic interplanetary station (AMS) "Chang'e-5" became the first Chinese spacecraft to reach the moon and return to Earth. The mission was launched in November 2020, and the return capsule with lunar soil samples was delivered to Earth in December.

One of the objectives of the mission was to conductexperiments on selection of agricultural crops in space. In particular, on board "Chang'e-5" there were about 40 grams of rice seeds, which were returned to Earth after the lunar mission.

The seeds were transferred to the researchCenter of South China Agricultural University. And some of these seeds have sprouted successfully. According to scientists, the results of this experiment will help to reveal the influence of space conditions on agricultural structures, as well as to develop rice varieties with unique properties.

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