The sight of LED bulbs bathing crops in their pinkish glow is now a familiar one in industrial glasshouses and high-tech farms all over the world.
But the first food grown using LEDs wasn’t intended to line supermarket shelves here on Earth. Instead it was intended to feed astronauts embarking on missions to outer space.
“The use of LEDs for growing plants was first tested and patented through NASA funded research,” Ray Wheeler, a plant physiologist with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Exploration Research and Technology programs, said in comments to Pinduoduo. “Now LEDs are used throughout the world for plant growing systems in greenhouses, vertical farms, and research plant chambers.”
In fact, as far back as the late 1980s, scientists at NASA were experimenting with prototype red LEDs to cultivate “leggy, bleached out” wheat plants in controlled environments, as a way to grow food without access to natural sunlight. Researchers experimented painstakingly across different colors and strengths of the bulbs to find an optimal glow, findings that fed directly back into the techniques that terrestrial farmers use today.
It’s just one example of how agricultural breakthroughs by space researchers have transformed the way we grow food here on Earth.
The need to feed astronauts in hostile conditions, including those spending months at a time on board the 356ft-long International Space Station (ISS), has meant research into space-resilient agriculture has formed a cornerstone of work for researchers at organizations such as NASA, ever since the first manned trip into space in 1961.
That research has meant that while at one time astronauts were restricted to a diet of unappetizing freeze-fried foods, huge advancements in preparation, packaging and production mean they now tuck into a hugely varied diet that includes more than a hundred types of fruits, vegetables, condiments, pre-prepared meals and even desserts.
And now, with longer missions to Mars imminent, that research has become even more critical. Though crews will likely be provided with some emergency rations of storable groceries they’ll be heavily reliant for fresh produce on cultivating their own crops on the Red Planet, with algae, edible insects and crops nurtured under artificial lighting all expected to make up their diet.
Far from benefiting a few astronauts though, the breakthroughs that will – and have helped - provide crews with a varied diet in space, have already made a huge difference to the way we grow food and drink here on Earth.
That’s because “identifying crops that perform well, through maximum edible biomass, nutrition etc., and grow efficiently with minimal consumable resources in space complements the need for similar crop performance on Earth,” Ralph Fritsche, space crop production manager with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Exploration Research and Technology programs, said in comments to Pinduoduo.
“This is also true for the advanced growth technologies that spaceflight will require such as advanced lighting, water delivery, waste recycling, robotic and autonomous systems, among other needs. Since many of these technologies relate closely to the needs of the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) community on Earth, understanding what makes certain plants perform well under spaceflight conditions and resource constraints can be directly applied to helping grow more robust plants on Earth, in both field agriculture impacted by the effects of climate change and in CEA settings.”
There are numerous examples of how milestone moments in space agriculture have also proven transformative on Earth.
The self-driving tractors that cultivate the majority of US farmland, for instance, continue to rely on the highly precise GPS technology developed by NASA. High resolution data from its satellites also helps farmers mitigate against the worst impacts of drought, while many precision farming techniques began life in NASA research labs.
First used to track the performance of crops in test conditions in space, the tools have been simplified into commercial software systems used the world over. The ability for ‘thirsty’ plants to request more water is just one example of this in action, with NASA-backed research recently creating a highly sensitive leaf sensor that monitors plants using electrical pulses, and feeding back their needs to either astronauts, or terrestrial farmers.
Such is the extent of this flow of ideas from one to the other that each year around 50 NASA technologies are transformed into commercial products and services, says the organization.
And more recently, it’s stepped up a gear. That’s because just as space researchers embark on their preparations for the first manned long-haul trips to Mars, so too has climate change on Earth highlighted the desperate need for produce that can survive in a hostile or unpredictable climate.
That’s why in January 2021, a cargo of 320 snippets of merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapevines landed in the Atlantic Ocean after having spent 10 months onboard the ISS. A project led by French startup Space Cargo Unlimited, the unusual cargo will be used to better understand how plants might adapt and rapidly evolve in space in order to overcome a hostile climate. By doing so the researchers hope to develop new, more resilient species that can withstand the ravages of higher temperatures and more extreme weather events on Earth. Though they’ve started with grapevines, the hope is a similar approach can be used for all sorts of other crops going forward.
In fact, there’s already speculation that orbiting greenhouses in space could be deployed to help stave off food security and create these ultra-resilient crops. An idea pioneered by US company Nanoracks, the company has already signed a contract with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) to open a space farming research center in the UAE that would cultivate crops, fly them in space and test their ability to thrive in arid conditions.
A Finnish startup, Solar Foods, is developing a concept for producing proteins for space flights to Mars, using carbon dioxide, water and electricity with a small amount of trace elements, according to the European Space Agency. A Japanese cultivated meat startup, IntegriCulture, is similarly working with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to accelerate the commercialization of in situ food production for “sustainable long-term manned Moon and Mars missions.”
This symbiotic relationship between space and Earth extends beyond simply food for nutrients too. In a bid to provide an ongoing supply of medication to astronauts on long-haul space missions and cut down on what teams are required to take with them (each 1 kg of mass costs about $100k), researchers have also investigated whether produce, such as lettuce, can be used to "grow" pharmaceuticals. If successful, the technology could also be used to help supply medication to areas on Earth struggling with a severe lack of access to medical centers.
The reality is that while space and space travel couldn’t feel much further away for most of us, when it comes to our food and drink it’s impact is a whole lot closer than you’d think.