Advanced Plant Habitat: Creating Farm-to-Table Meals for the Orbital Age

Peppers in Advanced Plant Habitat

Ushering in the Orbital Age® requires aligning different solutions to transform low-Earth orbit (LEO) from a dangerous, inhospitable environment into a safe place for private sector experts to create the tech of tomorrow, albeit one several hundred miles higher than professionals are used to. These solutions include how we get to space—answer: the Dream Chaser® spaceplane—but also how we stay in space. Sourcing the vegetables that will be a crucial component of future specialist astronauts’ diets ranks highly on this latter list.

But first, humanity’s shift to the Orbital Age depends on enabling private sector experts to live and work in LEO as comfortably as possible. Requirements to keep people alive in space have not changed. We all need clean air and water, plus a consistent food supply. What does tend to shift is the level of comfort and security accompanying life’s basic necessities. 

And that is Sierra Space’s central focus.

Just as the Dream Chaser team continues making refinements to Tenacity®, our first of fleet of spaceplanes, we are also hard at work developing LIFE®, the backbone of our future infrastructure in LEO. (Most recently, a one-third scale test unit passed a stress test with flying colors when our team purposefully inflated it to the point it exploded.) This test demonstrated LIFE can withstand pressures far beyond what would be needed to keep astronauts safe in LEO. But our focus isn’t just on keeping humans alive, but also on helping them thrive. 

And what helps people flourish more than fresh, healthy food?

Unfortunately, nutrition has always been a thorny space issue. Collectively, we have already grown quite adept at handling both oxygen and water demand by developing efficient filtering processes. Plus, rapid advances in power systems, including Sierra Space’s Surface Mount Technology (SMT), can handle the increased requirements of private sector activity in LEO. But what about food? People living and working in LEO still largely require food deliveries from Earth. 

Turns out, dependency on the space version of your favorite meal delivery service not only demonstrates the weakness of the nascent space economy, it’s also a tremendous cost driver. As UConn professor of plant physiology Mary Musgrave once quipped, “Let’s say you take a hamburger with you to space. How much does it cost in terms of fuel to bring that up? It’s $3,000 for your quarter-pounder. It’s expensive to lift weight up into orbit.” Musgrave who has since passed, also helped work on the Biomass Production System in the early 2000’s with Orbital Technologies Corporation (ORBITEC) which was acquired and now a part of Sierra Space. 

The answer to this conundrum? Grow more food in space. The problem is it isn’t as simple as planting a garden in LEO. Just as microgravity dramatically changes the game in medicine and manufacturing, plants also act very differently in microgravity. Now, when we consider what it takes to successfully grow plants, we often concentrate on water, sunlight, and soil. 

What doesn’t make the list? 

Gravity. However, it’s crucial to this process. A plant growth response called gravitopism dictates roots grow downwards and shoots grow upwards, a concept microgravity (literally) turns on its head in LEO. Just ask any astronaut how confusing the lack of gravity can be, and you’ll begin to discern how tough it must be for the poor plants! 

To overcome such challenges, NASA previously partnered with ORBITEC, now part of Sierra Space on the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH). NASA first developed the APH to research growing vegetables in LEO’s unique conditions to provide a reliable food supply. Sierra Space is now heavily involved with the APH, initially deployed to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2017. 

Far from being a hobby garden in LEO, APH is a sophisticated apparatus to test crops and monitor their full growth cycle.

A closed-loop system, it possesses an environmentally controlled growth chamber. That’s a crucial component of researching plants in space as it grants researchers the confidence to determine shifts in growth patterns aren’t caused by lack of light or an errant water delivery system. In fact, APH has more than 180 sensors monitoring items like temperature, oxygen levels, and moisture content—in real time. It can also generate different types of lighting conditions via an innovative design featuring red, blue, green, and broad spectrum white LED lights. 

All this tech is busy unlocking the future of food in space even as you read this article. What’s more, Sierra Space has partnered with NASA on multiple experiments with the APH including PH-01, for comparing plants grown in space with those on earth to assess key differences in photosynthesis and metabolism. The current experiment, PH-03, is also studying epigenetic adaptations in plants grown in space. (Space grown plants will go through their entire life cycle in LEO, with their seeds returned home for study and future replanting back in orbit.) 

This study promises to unlock deeper understandings of how vegetables will contribute to a stable off-world food supply. But like all of Sierra Space’s activities in the Orbital Age, the APH will contribute to life here on earth. Yes, ongoing research using the APH is creating new plant strains with the ability to provide fresh produce for those living and working aboard LIFE Habitats. But these same strains may also thrive terrestrially, especially in areas that have never enjoyed such success. (Agriculture on earth can only improve as new food crops are introduced that can withstand harsh conditions that would cause their traditional earthbound cousins to wither and die.)

Undoubtedly, the APH is just one of many Sierra Space projects running at full speed to truly open up LEO for the benefit of all. If you want to be part of the team making the Orbital Age not just possible—but habitable—please consider joining us today.

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