Space farming with GreenSat: feeding the frontier

Imagine the future of space: what do you envision? Cities on Mars and the Moon? Space battles and lasers? Alien worlds and exploration? Warp drives and hyperspace? What if I told you the future of space is rooted in the humble farm? Ben Koschnick reports on one of BLUEsat’s latest projects: GreenSat. 

With the success of the International Space Station (ISS) and the world’s sights set on a manned mission to Mars, long-term spaceflight is becoming more routine. The recent boom in interest in asteroid mining promises to provide astronauts with materials and fuel for their journey. However, the lack of food production in space will eventually become a significant hurdle. To colonise space and remove astronauts’ dependence on supplies from Earth, vast quantities of food will need to be produced. This requires a great deal of understanding about how plants and other organisms react to the space environment but how can we test this? In the present day, access to space is limited due to the prohibitive costs of spacecraft and launch.

GreenSat is a new initiative of UNSW’s BLUEsat Student-led project and will provide a controlled environment aboard a CubeSat for biological and agricultural experiments in space. Our satellites will provide a suitable environment for a biological system of microbes and plant life to grow and flourish in space using a minimalistic design. Our work aims to assess the feasibility of building a platform that can house any isolated biological system for experiments in space.

Agriculture: the cornerstone of civilisation

Circa 10,000 BC, the first agricultural revolution began as plants and animals were domesticated and grown for food. The surplus of food allowed humans to abandon their nomadic lifestyle and build the first settlements, which led to developments in commerce, politics and culture. From the banks of the Nile and the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East to the Yangtze and Yellow River basins in China, civilisations rose and fell in areas ripe for farming. Advancements in agriculture have been linked to other population and economic changes such as the industrial revolution beginning in the 18th century and the ongoing boom in population and technology as a result of the information revolution in the second half of the 20th century.

Food of the future

As we look to the future, the need for new advancements in agriculture stem from two of the greatest challenges of the modern age. As the revolution in space exploration provides the materials to build and power new space hardware, the cost of space continues to drop dramatically. Multiple organisations are looking to capitalise on this evolution in both the commercial and government sectors, with some even planning manned exploration of Mars. However, the supply of food for these missions is still dependent on our home planet. Growing and cultivating food in orbit or en route will allow manned space missions to reduce their reliance on supplies from Earth.

The second challenge is closer to home. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, around 795 million people worldwide, or 12.9% of the global population, were found malnourished in a 2014-2016 survey. At the time of writing, over 20 million people are facing starvation in a famine that spans four countries in Africa. These problems are set to increase in severity as the global population continues to rise, with predictions by the United Nations estimating over 11 billion people by the end of the century. The situation is set to worsen as the population growth is highest in countries already suffering from widespread food shortages. This, however, is not entirely due to a lack of food worldwide. A major factor is the logistics of moving food from where it is grown, to the people who need it. Advancements in agricultural sciences for the space industry could, then, help to grow more food in less hospitable environments and ease the logistical cost of supplying food to impoverished regions.

The GreenSat Team at the 2017 International Astronautical Congress

Baby steps

To achieve this, BLUESat’s GreenSat project will comprise of multiple ground and orbital experiments aimed at developing an effective means of growing food in space. This will allow us to learn and develop our methods to optimise the process.

Ground experiments will allow us to test our habitats under controlled conditions and iterate our design without the costs of launch. These experiments will give us a chance to prove our habitat can protect the sample from the harsh conditions of space. We can also study the long-term stability of the sample populations within the habitat to ensure success in our orbital experiments.

The space segment will be comprised of habitats hosted by BLUESat-designed satellites. Further experiments might include payloads hosted on the ISS or other missions.

The future

GreenSat will provide a simple, elegant testbed for understanding the process of growing food in the space environment. If successful, this knowledge can be applied to providing large-scale agriculture for an entire generation of a space-faring civilisation and could also improve life on Earth.




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