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Space Food From Space Farms 168

Modern Farmer magazine has an article about NASA's efforts into growing food in space, a slow, difficult process that's nonetheless necessary if humanity is to have any significant presence away from Earth's surface. Quoting: "This December, NASA plans to launch a set of Kevlar pillow-packs, filled with a material akin to kitty litter, functioning as planters for six romaine lettuce plants. The burgundy-hued lettuce (NASA favors the 'Outredgeous' strain) will be grown under bright-pink LED lights, ready to harvest after just 28 days. NASA has a long history of testing plant growth in space, but the goals have been largely academic. Experiments have included figuring out the effects of zero-gravity on plant growth, testing quick-grow sprouts on shuttle missions and assessing the viability of different kinds of artificial light. But [the Vegetable Production System] is NASA's first attempt to grow produce that could actually sustain space travelers. Naturally, the dream is to create a regenerative growth system, so food could be continually grown on the space station — or, potentially, on moon colonies or Mars. ... Plant size is a vital calculation in determining what to grow on the space station, where every square foot is carefully allotted. Harvest time is also of extreme importance; the program wants to maximize growth cycles within each crew’s (on average) six-month stay."
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Space Food From Space Farms

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  • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @08:13AM (#44817867) Homepage

    What will they use as fertilizer?

    • MANure
    • Why not make it? []

      There's an abundance of everything we need in space, although I can see stations being a far more convenient platform for future exploration than planetary colonisation. Even the best candidate, Mars, is terrible - where it's warm there is no water, where there's water it's in the -30s at least, an atmosphere as close to vacuum as makes no odds and while it does have gravity I doubt it's enough to stop bone

      • by Khyber ( 864651 )

        "There's an abundance of everything we need in space"

        Yes, you tell me where we're going to get nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and other trace elements IN ORBIT.

    • Maybe the "kitty-litter like" substance is a clue?
      • The "kitty-litter like" substance sounded like (to me) just material to hold the plant in place, since you don't have gravity to do it for you. However, it seems they would go with aeroponics [] instead?

        • by Khyber ( 864651 )

          No, you would not do aeroponics. You would do a mat-based NFT system that would utilize capillary action to ensure even moisture and nutrient content at the roots and contain water (as aeroponics in zero gravity is a huge mistake.)

          • Then why is/was NASA the one doing all those aeroponics experiments (successfully) in orbit?

            • by Khyber ( 864651 )

              They're utilizing a bulky sealed system. Good luck getting any decent yield per cubic meter.

    • The same thing we use for fertilizer here on earth. The good shit. Animal agriculture is a vital part of the equation. Plants and animals co-evolved to use each others wastes.

      • by cusco ( 717999 )

        Guinea pigs are probably a better choice. Reproduce faster, less fat, need less space, and the pellet-type manure is easier to deal with. They thrive on kitchen waste and weeds, and are dumber than pigs so less likely to cause trouble. They're also MUCH less aggressive than a sow in heat (or a boar any time), and the males don't need to be castrated to make the meat eatable. The only disadvantage is that they won't eat meat or fish offal like a pig would, but there are plenty of fish that will do that.

        • by pubwvj ( 1045960 )

          Wow, so much mythunderstanding and so little real knowledge in your reply:

          1) Fat is a necessary dietary component. If you don't get it you won't be healthy. Even in space you'll need fat.

          2) Pigs don't actually have much fat unless you breed and feed them for it. "Fat Pigs" are made that way primarily through miss-management since few people have lard type pigs now. Even lard type pigs aren't fat if kept on a proper feed.

          3) Pigs thrive on kitchen wastes, weeds, pasture and just about anything making them a p

          • by cusco ( 717999 )

            Most of my knowledge of pigs comes from those raised by my dad in the '40s/'50s and my wife's relatives in Peru, so probably none of them would have been the breeds you use. Perfectly willing to be educated, that's what I come to SlashDot for.

            A dozen guinea pigs (which do have some fat on them, but not the lard belly that I associate with pork) can be raised on the potato peelings, banana skins, etc. of a family, with a few greens on occasion to round out the diet. In a very large habitat you might have e

            • by pubwvj ( 1045960 )

              "Can you inbreed your porkers, or would you need to have sperm for insemination brought in?"

              You can inbreed. It is just like any animal, or plant. Breed the best of the best and eat the rest. Inbreeding problems don't appear by magic but are from recessive genes that become visible. Cull them. That is the problem with inbreeding where people aren't willing to cull the offspring. This is why inbreeding humans is generally frowned on. :)

              "I've had meat from uncastrated boars, it's eatable but not good."

              Then yo

    • by Khyber ( 864651 )

      If they're smart, they'll use solid salt extracts from seawater (look up SEA-90,) supplement the lacking N and P with potash and solid nitrates, and use the water onboard in a very conservative capillary-action root mat + NFT system that will drastically reduce the water usage and waste.

      Trying to recycle human waste into fertilizer would be extremely energy intensive and potentially hazardous contamination-wise.

      • Trying to recycle human waste into fertilizer would be extremely energy intensive and potentially hazardous contamination-wise.

        Exposing human waste to hard vacuum and direct sunlight for a while wouldn't be sufficient to sterilize it? I'm actually curious about that.
        That would make space toilet design a lot easier. You just need to avoid what happened to U-1206 []

        • by Khyber ( 864651 )

          It's the breaking down of the materials afterwards into bioavailable nutrient salts that's the issue. Also, bacteria and such can survive a hard vacuum of space and some can even withstand UV bombardment well past UVC range.

      • by cusco ( 717999 )

        Fish seem to be pretty good at breaking down human waste into something that is easier for plants and bacteria to deal with, talapia and fresh water anchovies in particular IIRC.

  • by delt0r ( 999393 ) on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @08:16AM (#44817885)
    I would be more interested in terrestrial applications. Removing pressure on habitats or even letting current farmland revert back to natural habitats would have a large impact on the plasticity of many ecosystems. In short making them more robust to changes in climate for example.
    • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

      Why? Earth hydroponics already works fantastically. We already have the technology to do it here significantly more efficient. I can grown in a 20X60 greenhouse enough food to easily feed 20 people. The problem is that it's more expensive and takes more labor. 14 foot tall tomato plants take a lot of care, you havet orun pumps 24/7, etc...

      It's a lot cheaper to just spread seed over a giant farm ad hope for the best.

      • by delt0r ( 999393 )
        Interesting. I would have thought it would be much less labor since everything is closer and in a more controlled environment. That could even lend itself to more automation. Why is it more labor? After all you can't really just "spread seed" for tomatoes in general, at least in my limited experience.
      • by Khyber ( 864651 )

        ". The problem is that it's more expensive and takes more labor. "

        Not even close. It's more expensive on fuel alone to do open-land farming.

        More labor? With everything packed into a dense area that's LESS labor (and expended energy and fuel.)

        "you havet orun pumps 24/7, "

        Not even close AGAIN! NFT systems only roll three watering cycles a day.

        Methinks you're looking at the least efficient methods of hydroponics, or you're horrible at the entire thing in the first place.

        • This. If you can avoid importing pests and diseases, then variants of the French biointensive method are probably best for (1) diet (2) converting CO2 to O2, (3) space constraints. Likewise, very little is as effective at energy-efficiency, as human labor. Again, the human labor provides the astronauts with something to do.

          I'd suggest that one should calculate how much plant space you need to support each astronaut's breathing, and then go from there. Use the mechanical scrubbers as an automated emerge

        • by N1AK ( 864906 )
          And that is why traditional agriculture died out and everything is grown in multi-story, controlled environment greenhouses today...

          Unless you're suggesting that there is a conspiracy to stop hydroponics then the very fact that it is the exception and not the norm is evidence enough; however if you're sure that it is so much more profitable then by all means set up a firm and make a killing and I'll be the first to admit that Khyber was not, in fact, making shit up.
          • by Khyber ( 864651 )

            " however if you're sure that it is so much more profitable then by all means set up a firm and make a killing and I'll be the first to admit that Khyber was not, in fact, making shit up."

            Okay, done deal.



    • In a station with gravity equivalent to the surface of the moon or greater, go with aquaponics. Aquaponics is hydroponics with fish and bacteria included in the system. Instead of soil, you use expanded shale as the growth medium in the grow bed. Red worms live in GB and digest any dead roots or leaves, nitrobacter converts the ammonia waste from the fish into nitrite and nitrate which the plants then take up as nutrients. There are certain plants that can be grown that can provide a good portion of the foo
  • Wasted effort (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    I think it's a waste of time trying to solve issues of maintaining a biosphere in space, when a push into space will be much easier after we've reached the Singularity: machine bodies don't need food, air or water.

    • Re:Wasted effort (Score:5, Insightful)

      by somersault ( 912633 ) on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @08:33AM (#44817969) Homepage Journal

      Machines don't need bodies at all. In fact, machines don't want or need anything. Humans are curious though, and like to do essentially pointless things just because we can. So we're going to have our biosphere in space.

      Besides, the Singularity is just about AI. It doesn't follow that humans are immediately going to go extinct. We may have decent cyborg bodies before then anyway, and so could reduce our food/air/water requirements too.

      • Besides, the Singularity is just about AI.

        You clearly haven't read the book. Short answer is no it's not. Kurzwell goes into great detail how AI, nanotech, and other technology will allow us to slowly merge with technology until we are no longer just biological. If you are going to make pronouncements as what the singularity is, at least read the damn book.

        • What makes you think that the idea of the singularity is from a single book? Presumably you're referring to Kurzweil's 2005 book. That's just one person's vision of a general concept that has been around since the 1950s:

          The technological singularity, or simply the singularity, is a theoretical point in time when human technology (and, particularly, technological intelligence) will have so rapidly progressed that, ultimately, a greater-than-human intelligence will emerge

    • by fritsd ( 924429 )
      Obligatory Dilbert []
    • by khallow ( 566160 )

      I think it's a waste of time trying to solve issues of maintaining a biosphere in space, when a push into space will be much easier after we've reached the Singularity: machine bodies don't need food, air or water.

      I was told back in 2000 that the Singularity would solve the problem of cheap access to space in twenty years. So we have about seven years to go.

      Second, we are already machines. But machines that happen to need food, air, and water. There's no particular reason to wait for the Singularity to do things which we can do now.

      • Waiting for the Singularity is like waiting for the Messiah. Or Godot.

        It may happen in 10 years, or in 10 thousand years. It may not happen at all. We have no idea.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    "Plant size is a vital calculation in determining what to grow on the space station, where every square foot is carefully allotted. "

    Square ft on the US part of ISS, square meters (or square decimeters) on the Russian/European parts

    • So, you're saying that the Russians, and Euro's by using Metric don't really know how big the sizes are? Oh, oh; this is not good.
      • Or the other way around. I remember that the mirror of the space telescope was placed awfully exact 1" wrong. I don't remember who did that, though.
  • by barlevg ( 2111272 ) on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @08:33AM (#44817967)

    every square foot is carefully allotted

    Shouldn't that be CUBIC foot (or, more likely, meter, as the AC above pointed out)? Square footage is only a good measure when you're tethered to the floor.

    • by dywolf ( 2673597 )

      gardens are laid out by square footage.
      given that they probably dont want their plants floating in balls of soil in the middle of the room....they would be secured to the wall or floor of the module.
      you said yourself "tethered to the floor" ... well thats exactly what happens with plants.

      also, quibbling over units used for a phrase uttered to illustrrate a concept rather than an actual measurement is silly.

  • by Thanshin ( 1188877 ) on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @08:37AM (#44817995)

    Will this bring a significant improvement in oxygen recycling?

    • Re:oxigen (Score:5, Interesting)

      by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @08:47AM (#44818047) Homepage Journal

      Not yet. Eventually, yes. They could grow basil onboard the station. Basil respirates all night (baby) and it's edible and has a ton of health benefits, so it's a logical choice.

      However, it makes less than no sense to grow in a soil-like medium. They should be using aeroponics. Growing in any solid medium at all is just fucking stupid, because it's unnecessary mass.

      • Re:oxigen (Score:5, Informative)

        by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @09:11AM (#44818205) Homepage

        They are looking to reduce maintenance and power use. Aero and hydroponics requires constant power. Dirt medium does not.

        • Re:oxigen (Score:4, Informative)

          by Electricity Likes Me ( 1098643 ) on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @10:05AM (#44818671)

          Aeroponics has containment issues. If you're misting water constantly, it's going to go everywhere. In fact it's probably not going to behave quite right either since the water doesn't fall - droplets can aggregate and just float around forever. So you're then looking at a complex vacuum system to keep the water moving through properly.

          Much easier just to absorb it into something near the plant roots.

      • by dywolf ( 2673597 )

        ya mist droplets floating around in microgravity. thats exactly what they need on a space station ...

        Look, most plants simply dont even know how to grow without gravity being present, and the simplest solution is for any actual space farm to be given spin, however slight. so then, rather than using a mister/atomizer (too much energy for droplet size) you can simply run drip lines or semi-permeable hoses through a "soil" medium, for simple and efficient watering. therefore, soil, also being needful for op

      • by Khyber ( 864651 )

        "However, it makes less than no sense to grow in a soil-like medium. They should be using aeroponics."

        Not even close. The idea of fine mist floating around to get into equipment is just absolutely ball-to-the-wall stupid.

        Sealed hydroponics or a solid-mat capillary action growing medium are what's called for here.

      • by cusco ( 717999 )

        Problem with basil is that it also excretes its scent 24x7, especially if anything brushes against it. It wouldn't take long before everyone got really, really tired of smelling it and ripped it out.

  • I wonder if they have tried "Chia Pets"?

  • Surely of all the vegetables, lettuce is one we could do without?

    • by fritsd ( 924429 )
      According to the Russians, it had a positive effect on the Moscow-Tin-Can-nauts' psychological well-being.
      This is also mentioned of Pettit's Space Zucchini on the ISS, in TFA.

      The Zarya module was launched in 1998, why did it take until 2013 for NASA to launch this VEGGIE program??? Obviously, food in space doesn't seem to have such a high priority in the ISS program.

      During this six-month stay Pettit brought the space zucchini up with “two new crewmates” — broccoli and sunflower plants

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Have there seriously been no attempts to grow produce in orbit yet? I would have thought it would have been an insanely easy & cheap experiment. Just slap some tomato seeds in a small fabric bag filled with dirt, let them grow a bit and send them up into orbit in a small net enclosure to see how well they grow by one of the stations/shuttles windows.

  • Gonna drink space beer at the space bar

  • by DeathToBill ( 601486 ) on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @09:06AM (#44818167) Journal

    It's not like they're further from the sun. So why not grow it using sunlight?

  • sounds like a hydroponic media that is not good for root production. They'd be better off using rock wool to promote root growth and give the plants something to bind to. Rock wool is pretty easy to create, especially in space where the energy is readily available using a sinmple solar concentrator and feed the matterial through the focal point.

    Another advantage of rock wool is the ability to retain a nutrient solution near the root ball to promote plant growth

    • by cusco ( 717999 )

      Wet rock wool makes a happy home for fungi and bacteria (speaking as one who has pulled it out of leaking attics). If pre-seeded with the correct varieties this could be a good thing I suppose, but it could be very dangerous if the wrong varieties take over.

  • To have to space soup, and not the space special.
  • Maybe Im lookin at this wrong, but it seems that you are dealing with a closed system with a leak in that there is only X amount of organic material and Y amount of energy being continually expended by at minimum the people existing (breathing, radiating heat, expending energey..etc) so it seems to be a matter of scale problem at that how long you want this thing to go would eventually be determined by how big X is.
  • " The burgundy-hued lettuce (NASA favors the 'Outredgeous' strain) will be grown under bright-pink LED lights, ready to harvest after just 28 days."

    Ignoring the higher quantum yields of green light is going to be a bad mistake. Catch up with the research done not even 4 years ago, NASA. No wonder you can't get a budget when you can't even keep up with the pace of research.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The soil replacement substrate they are testing (arcillite) is highly absorbent and probably is pretreated with the fertilizers. I know that similar experiments (SVET, russian ) were done on the Russion Mir station (my father was leading the team that developed the soil substrate). They used naturally occurring mineral (zeolite) which is extremely good absorbent. You can pretreat it with a fertilizer mix and it will leach small amounts of nutrients and support plant growth for years. All you need to do is a

  • by scorp1us ( 235526 ) on Wednesday September 11, 2013 @01:27PM (#44820899) Journal

    How the heck are you to make any kind of food other than raw in space? Your microwave oven is going to take 1kW, and you'll get mushy carrots at best. How do you dice in 0g? What about stir-fry? That seems very messy!

  • To go where no farmer has gone before... []

  • Eating salad in space; sounds like the next viral video sensation... Could get pretty messy!

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