Farming the Galaxy
Have you ever stopped to wonder what life might be like on another planet?
Do you imagine a tropical oasis amidst the rocky, windswept plains of Mars, or an isolated outpost beneath the unforgiving, frozen wastelands of a chilling ice giant?
Perhaps you might even consider the possibility of encountering exotic alien life forms on this new planet? Or the potential discovery of new species of animals and plant life?
The truth is, almost anything is possible in space.
As humans, we are yet to fully comprehend the totality of the limitless vastness of space, including its potential to harbor exotic new worlds.
Space travel is thus one of humankind’s greatest endeavors. Not only does it probe the fundamental reasons behind our very existence, but may now be the key to securing our future.
A New Earth?
In July 2015, NASA’s ‘Kepler Mission’ discovered the first Earth-sized planet to occupy the ‘habitable zone’ in space. ‘Kepler-186f’, as it was affectionately called, was found orbiting a faraway star at a distance where liquid water could feasibly accumulate on the planet’s surface.
This was incredibly exciting news for many at the time, igniting the passionate minds of countless scientists and observers keen to explore the possibilities of life on ‘another Earth’.
More importantly, it raised the question – What would it take for us humans to colonise a new planet?
To answer this question, scientists have since embarked upon numerous research projects, many of which to date have focused on understanding our tolerance, as a species, to the physical and psychological tolls of space travel. This has occurred alongside consistent improvement of technical equipment used for data collection and space travel itself.
Even more exciting though, is the resulting emergence of a mind-expanding new field of science called ‘space farming’.
Is there life on Mars?
For any of you ‘botany sceptics’ out there, you’ll be pleased to know ‘space farming’ has already earned its Hollywood street credentials thanks to action hero Matt Damon’s portrayal of fictional space botanist, Mark Watney, in the 2015 film ‘The Martian’.
The film tells the story of an astronaut helplessly stranded on the planet Mars, with a rapidly dwindling supply of food and water. Against all odds, he manages to put his heroic gardening prowess to good use to establish a potato garden in the wreckage of his space craft.
Whilst the film reminds us that life on Mars still remains firmly within the realm of science fiction, experts at NASA believe the film does well to accurately introduce several ‘real technologies’ of space farming in a manner that helps communicate the end goal of researchers.
At present, research in the field of ‘space farming’ is attempting to address ongoing concerns about potential food-supplies for long-distance space travel, to places such as Mars, as well as methods of food production if humans were to one day colonise a new planet.
As part of NASA’s ‘Journey to Mars’ project, plant technicians on the International Space Station have successfully grown red romaine lettuce from special seed-containing ‘rooting pillows’, using a powerful crop-production system humbly named ‘Veggie’.
‘Purple Haze’: The mysterious role of light in space farming
While the name might not sound like much to some, the system does involve some rather cutting edge use of energy-efficient LED lights to generate red, blue and green wavelengths of light critical for the growth of developing crop seedlings. These LED light sources may also be varied to simulate different day lengths to suit the long- and short-day growth cycles of different crops.
Whilst green light has traditionally held very little importance in plant growth because the majority is reflected by the plant’s green surfaces, without it, these space-vegetables exude a supernatural, pinkish-purple glow. “Groovy, baby!” you might say in true Austin-Powers style.
Jokes aside, our astronauts are far from the space-food connoisseurs they would have us believe. As NASA plant technician Dr. Ray Wheeler explains, green light is merely applied to make the crops more ‘visually appealing’ for consumption by astronauts.
Whilst all this newfangled technology may sound outright complicated, rest assured that this is not the first time plants have been experimentally grown in space. It is however, the first time said plants have been consumed on board by the very astronauts that have grown them. This in itself is an exciting step towards developing a truly ‘self-sufficient’ food supply in deep space.
What does the future hold?
The success of this recent trial has meant NASA is now “looking to expand the amount and type of crops to help meet the nutritional needs of future astronauts on Mars”.
This is spectacular news for the advancement of space exploration, with the technology also having numerous useful applications in everyday life here on Earth.
Better yet, this new technology may one day hold the key to allowing us to ‘live long and prosper’ on the shores of a new galactic utopia.