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this week, astronaut peggy whitson broke the record for the longest amount of time spent in space by a US astronaut, after 534 whole days away from planet earth. but with the possibility of spending ever greater periods of time up in space comes the question—how can astronauts sustain themselves whilst away from the blue planet? in turn, NASA scientists have come together with researchers from the agriculture department at the university of arizona to develop an inflatable greenhouse prototype that can be used to grow vegetables in deep space.

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the inflatable, deployable greenhouse is designed to provide a sustainable vegetarian diet for astronauts
image courtesy of the university of arizona

 

 

the prototype is designed to sustain astronauts on a continuous vegetarian diet in distant locations, such as the moon or on mars. aboard the international space station, NASA scientists have long been gaining experience in growing crops in space, yet the new 18 X 7 ft deployable greenhouse can also be used for air revitalization, water recycling or waste recycling. the idea is for carbon dioxide exhaled by the astronauts to be introduced into the martian/ lunar greenhouse, which is then used by the plants to photosynthesize and generate oxygen. the whole process is called a bioregenerative life support system.

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c02 exhaled by astronauts is used by the plants during photosynthesis
image courtesy of the university of arizona

 

 

dr. gene giacomelli, director of the controlled environment agriculture center at the university of arizona explains simply that ‘we’re mimicking what the plants would have if they were on earth, and using of these processes for life support. the entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on earth.’

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the plants scrub c02, whilst producing food and oxygen
image courtesy of the university of arizona

 

 

the hydroponic plant growth chamber can use both natural or artificial LED lighting to grow the plants, depending on the location where it is needed. the greenhouse is intened to provide a more autonomous approach to long-term exploration on the moon, mars, and beyond.

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the skeleton of the lunar/ martian greenhouse
image courtesy of the university of arizona

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a NASA scientist grows lettuce aboard the ISS
image courtesy of NASA

  • With all due respect, inflatable greenhouses have been around since 1964… (Search Rutgers inflatable greenhouse)
    This is just a new way of shaping one, making it air tight, and then finding a new use…
    Don’t get me wrong, any publicity for the ag-engineering field is good, however, I wonder how much money was spent/wasted on this, when the design already existed. And also the lack of credit given that I could find on the original sites is disappointing.

    Robert Cook says:
  • Robert [Bob], No money was wasted, but much time, energy and money was invested to reach this new desing.
    This is Gene [[email protected]] formerly faculty at Rutgers Agricultural Engineering Dept., who mentored by and who worked with Bill Roberts and Dr. Dave Mears from 1980 – 2000 on many aspects of greenhouses as controlled environments for food production. Yes, they created the first air-inflated, double-polyethylene covered greenhouse, which is now standard of the industry of flexible film covered greenhouse structures. They also established other standards of greenhouse design for example in an air-supported structure, not just an air-inflated covering of a mechanically supported structure [2 different designs]. I have discussed this with them, and have their publications. There were others, such as the Ohio greenhouse air-supported structure for covering the farm field and growing tomato crops in the soil, too. See efforts of Dr Ted Short and Bill Bauerle from OSU.
    But what is missed most in your interpretation is that it was the historical experiences of greenhouse design, as well as hydroponic crop production [my interest since 1980] that could be transformed into a new format, for a new client [NASA] and provide plant production in a semi-automated way that with much materials development in the future may ultimately bring life-support and food production to people living on another planet.
    Finally, what is regularly missed within most brief writings about a popular subject for the media is that typically one person or institution is given credit. It is simpler and easier to do, and besides raising the hackles of the collaborators it does not affect the quality of the story. It is the sad truth.
    As for the Lunar Greenhouse since 2004, Mr. Phil Sadler of Sadler Machine Company has be the driving force and the creator of the design. He and I , and now with Dr. Roberto Furfaro [current Principal investigator on the project] have had 30 – 40 students, faculty, staff, national and international collaborators, all too many to mention.

    Gene Giacomelli says:
  • We never claimed to invent the inflatable greenhouse, I’m sure it existed long before 1964. We just were utilizing one of NASA’s module formats to try and have a space that we could develop our crop systems in that had a high degree of mission fidelity. We were challenged by NASA to provide a system that could be deploy autonomously and have crops growing by the time the crew showed up.

    Phil Sadler says:

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