Crops on moon…

Scientists will attempt to grow food in space as part of a project it is hoped will lead to crops being cultivated on the Moon and Mars.

The 10-year programme being led by researchers in Norway will see foods such as cherry tomatoes, lettuce and soybeans grown on the International Space Station (ISS).

Called Time Scale, the project is being run alongside the EU and the European Space Agency (ESA) to investigate how food plants grow in space and how the plants can help supply space travellers with food and air in the future.

Ann-Iren Kittang Jost, research manager at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space (CIRIS) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, is leading the project.

“I do envision that what we can form the basis for food cultivation on the Moon and Mars sometime in the future,” she told Science Nordic.

Thomas Reiter, Expedition 13 flight engineer, installing the European Modular Cultivation System

The European Modular Cultivation System on the ISS. Pic: NASA

“These are just a few preliminary steps. I don’t want to venture a guess regarding how long it will take before they can be used on a large scale.

“We haven’t decided which food plant to cultivate yet. We’ve discussed cherry tomatoes, lettuce or soybeans.”

Astronauts need around 30kg of water, food and air each day and despite some recycling of water on the ISS, supplies must be delivered from earth at huge cost.

Plant experiments on the ISS have been run from the CIRIS control room in Trondheim since 2006, mostly on the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana – the first to have its genome sequenced.

But Ms Kittang Jost said the cultivation of more complex organisms in space conditions required far more research.

“There is no up or down in the microgravity of the space station,” she said.

“One of the big challenges is to administer exactly the right amount of water and nutrients to the plants in such little gravity.

“We have seen that a stationary film of air forms around a plant, so it just stands there breathing the same air.”

Key to the research will be the European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS) aboard the ISS, which is used to study plant biology in a reduced gravity environment.

The EMCS module will be upgraded to allow it to be used to study how food plants grow in those conditions, where air or water will not circulate without the help of machines.

“We can see (if) a plant isn’t getting enough water and thus monitor its health,” Ms Kittang Jost said.

“We don’t know much about how food plants behave in these gravities.

“It is assumed that plants grow okay in lower gravities if we have managed to cultivate them in micro-gravitational conditions, but there is a clear distinction.”

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