Sustaining Life Beyond Earth: Space Farming Technology for Extended Space Exploration

Veggie on ISS

Humanity has entered into the Orbital Age®, and agriculture is poised to undergo dramatic changes – especially when it comes to growing plants in space.

A key objective of today’s scientists and engineers is developing ways to sustain life during prolonged missions beyond the boundaries of space. Space farming technology lies at the crux of this endeavor, facilitating advancements in plant growth systems and food production technologies.

At Sierra Space, Lead Plant Scientist Dr. Robert Morrow and his team are continuously partnering with bright minds from the International Space Station (ISS) Lab to conduct groundbreaking experiments. Their innovation is contributing to far-reaching space farming research, shaping the future of extended space travel.

Last October, Dr. Morrow and Shaun Peiffer, Commercial Innovation Manager for the ISS National Lab, presented their latest findings at the Zenith Vertical Farming World Congress event in London.

For decades now, Sierra Space’s primary mission has been to support the next profound period of human innovation – on Earth and off-planet.


The Evolution of Plant Growth Systems

Plant growth systems evolved significantly over the last decade, progressing from simple experiments on Earth to advanced systems aboard the ISS. These systems not only contribute to understanding how crop production can benefit space missions but promote the psychological well-being of astronauts.

Two pioneering systems, Veggie and Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), have played pivotal roles in this scientific research. Veggie is a small plant growth chamber that requires crew maintenance, and the APH is an enclosed growth chamber with automated systems.


Challenges and Innovations in Space Farming

Despite the successes of Veggie and APH, their limitations highlight the need for continuous innovation and further evolution. Research from these systems is propelling the development of larger, more sophisticated systems, forging a path to greater self-sufficiency in space-based agriculture.

At the Vertical Farming World Congress in 2023, Dr. Morrow emphasized the goal of providing “bioregenerative life support systems” for remote inhospitable environments in space. These systems aim to provide oxygen, remove CO2, recycle water, and offer food for crews during long interplanetary missions.


Diving Deeper into the Veggie System

Operational since 2014, the Veggie system was the first to produce edible foods for U.S. crews in space, using lettuce as the inaugural crop. Over 15 plant varieties have been successfully grown, enhancing the potential vitamin intake and food options for space travelers.

Dr. Morrow highlighted the psychological advantages of space farming, emphasizing the importance of engaging in recreational activities and connecting with nature through plant cultivation.

As he said, “Salad crops can be used for diverse meal requirements that cannot really be met fully by packaged foods.

Furthermore, former NASA astronaut Dr. Tom Marshburn compared plants to “crewmates” after multiple ISS tours, underscoring the importance of daily upkeep for astronauts’ well-being. “It’s nice to have another living creature on board,” he once commented.

Ultimately, the Veggie system isn’t just a step forward in space agriculture – it’s a significant jump in astronauts’ psychological and physical care during extended rotations in space.


Limitations and Ongoing Efforts

As Dr. Marshburn noted during his October presentation, the Veggie system is not without its limitations in microgravity, such as the need for moisture capture and the use of a clay particulate soil substitute (to replicate the environment of soil on Earth).

“Harvests are tiny, and so we’re only able to sample a bit of the plant,” admitted Dr. Marshburn. Without a more robust vertical farming system or refrigeration option, sustainability is limited, which points to the need for ongoing refinements and enhancements to the system.


Advanced Plant Habitat (APH)

Installed on the ISS in 2017, APH does address current space farming limitations by growing a higher capacity of crop varieties. The system’s capabilities position it as a key contributor to ensuring a better understanding of crop production for future extended space missions.

Dr. Morrow envisions deploying larger systems on the ISS and/or new commercial space stations in the coming years, marking a significant step toward more sustainable life in space. This transition signifies a shift from experimental endeavors to more practical, routine applications.


The Future: Self-Sufficiency in Space-Based Agriculture

The ultimate goal of achieving self-sufficiency in space-based agriculture represents a paradigm shift in humanity’s relationship with space. It’s not merely a scientific pursuit – it’s a testament to human resilience and ingenuity, even in harsh environments.

Each leaf that unfurls in microgravity, each experiment conducted, and each new innovation introduced adds to the collective endeavor of making space a place where life can thrive – and supports life back on Earth.


This transition is pivotal for the viability of sustained human presence in space and lays the groundwork for future commercial space stations.

Shaun Peiffer aptly summarizes this vision: “To boldly go where no one has gone before, we must boldly grow the science and technology that will enable us to do so.”

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