Extraterrestrial gardening

Illustration by Diego Patino
Date:1 February 2011 Tags:,

Teams of scientists around the world – and above it, aboard the International Space Station – are trying to design farms for the diverse environments future explorers could encounter across the solar system. These indoor farms would reduce the need for costly resupply missions while removing carbon dioxide from the air, thus replenishing the astronauts’ breathing supply, and could produce about 250 kilograms of oxygen a year. Gene Giacomelli, a University of Arizona agricultural researcher and the lead investigator of a Nasa-funded growth chamber for the moon, envisages a multi-armed, inflatable greenhouse building staffed with robots that do the bulk of the work. “Astronauts should not have to be farmers,” he says.
By Alyson Sheppard

Solar collector
Sunlight is piped to buried greenhouses through fibre optic cables
Dinnertime
When colonists arrive, the robots will already have grown ingredients for their first meal
Cool-season crops
Lettuce, spinach, radishes, herbs
Greenhouse staff
Robotic farmers with articulated hands can operate on their own or be controlled from Earth
Warm-season crops
Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, strawberries
Air lock entrance

Lunar greenhouse: An automated setup
The ship holding prepackaged greenhouses lands on the Moon . The arms deploy and inflate, forming the greenhouses’ outer shell , and a robotic bulldozer rolls out of one arm and begins to bury
the structures , protecting them from radiation and micrometeorites.

Space farms will be customised for diverse environments:
Moon
A farm at the Moon's poles could tap water ice trapped in craters. Burying the farm buildings will protect them from cosmic rays, micrometeorites and extreme temperatures. Status: researchers at the University of Arizona are operating a moon-farm prototype that yields 500 kilograms of edible plants a year.

Earth orbit
Plants in microgravity draw up water and fertiliser faster than roots can process them. Slowly trickling in fertiliser solves the problem and improves plant health. Status: Russians on the International Space Station developed the technique by growing radishes, peas and barley.

Mars
The planet's protective atmosphere allows structures to be built aboveground. Status: Italy's space agency is designing greenhouses that can endure Mars's low-pressure, high-carbonLunar greenhouse: dioxide environment.