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Pumpkins in Outer Space?
To many of us fall is synonymous with pumpkins. It means pumpkin pie, carving jack-o-lanterns, and watching them hurled for yards in Punkin’ Chunkin. We were curious though - as earthly pressures such as droughts and pests become common how will we solve the problem of feeding the global population? Additionally, our future goals of habiting space over long-term stays are inherently connected as conditions on space stations challenge crop growth, and we don’t even know what to expect from a Moon or Mars outpost.
Will we still be able to eat our beloved pumpkins and other vegetables or are we going to be living off some sort of stockpiled protein powder shuttled up from Earth? Pumpkin powder instead of pie? That sounds pretty grim…
Not to worry. Scientists have been working with high tech concepts to ready us for a future of growing fruits and vegetables in “alternative environments.” The changing nature of growing food on our own planet drives some of the initial research, but the end goal is getting us ready to grow fruits and vegetable in space. Be prepared though…these won’t be your normal pumpkin patches.
Here are some technologies in the works so we can get our pumpkins – and other favorite fruits and vegetables safely now and when we’re ready to live in space:
Going small is one way we’ll be able to tend to our plants – here on Earth first and then as we reach space. On Earth, with droughts and pests plaguing our crops scientists have been thinking about ways to help get the best, healthiest yields they can get. Nano-sensors are one method in development.
These extremely tiny sensors can be programmed to do a variety of things to help plants in need. To combat bugs and keep us healthy scientists are working on pesticides encased in nanoparticles; these microscopic particles of pesticides would only be released in a bug’s stomach keeping the exposure to humans via our plants at a minimum.
Other sensors are being developed that can monitor a plant’s needs – such as when it needs fertilizer or water. These sensors would be connected to dispensers that cater to these needs on a large scale, helping farmers increase their yield as the global population puts demands on our food resources. They also help keep costs down, which could make good food more affordable for those who need it.
These sensors are still in development because they will need to be produced on a large scale for the mega-farms here on Earth. Scientists continue the research not just for the short-term benefits but also for the future when harvests will take place in space.
By the virtue of their microscopic size we will be using nano-materials and tools in space where we may not have a lot of room to spare. The same nano-sensors being developed now would almost certainly have a place in a space gardener’s arsenal – with the additional ability of sensing when plants need more light and attention to rotation to combat the effects of zero gravity. Producing the most efficient yields will only become more important as we start living in outer space.
We are all pretty comfortable with LEDs now that they are in most homes. These bulbs are only going to become more important in the future – even in farming.
Here on Earth, scientists are increasingly thinking about plant yields. Global conditions keep surprising us, often leading to loss of valuable crops even as our demand for food grows. One of the methods scientists are exploring to take the guess-work out of things is taking the plants indoors.
It may sound strange, but growing plants inside or even underground if needed, may only increase plant yields. A Dutch company called PlantLab is experimenting with indoor crops with some interesting results.
There are four main things a plant needs to grow: food, water, air (or carbon dioxide to be specific), and light. PlantLab’s experiments use sensors – not unlike the ones mentioned above to constantly get feedback and adjust environmental conditions to get the most efficient yield. By using sustainable practices such as recycling water and using composted material for fertilizer they have been able reduce the costs of food and water.
How do the plants grow without light? That’s where the LEDs come in.
While we think plants need sunlight to grow, it’s actually not the case. Gardeners and scientists have known for some time that to photosynthesize plants only need the red and blue waves from the spectrum of light. In fact, having exposure to the full spectrum of light can sometimes make it a challenge for some plants to grow.
PlantLab has installed LED lights in their closed environments, but only in the red and blue spectrum and it turns out this practice causes the plants, in some cases, to grow twice as efficiently, as well as keeping energy costs down.
Again, as is the case with the nanosensors, it’s likely that LEDs will become part of a plant grower’s arsenal in space. Their small size with more efficient output is exactly what will be needed to grow in the tight spaces of space stations and beyond.
What all the experimentation in exacting care with food, water and light are all gradually leading us to is a process called bioregeneration. Humans could face a future living in close quarters with plants either here on Earth or on a Mars base.
Water, once used, can be recycled either through evaporation or through “grey” or used water (and yes, urine) that can be filtered. This means the water we have or take with us to space can water the plants and then be reclaimed for us to drink and for plants to drink again and again.
Plant food in the bioregeneration process is an easy one. Humans produce enough waste – through bodily waste and food scraps – to provide the fertilizer for the plants. In return, the plants feed us.
Even the very air we both need works out in bioregeneration. Humans use oxygen from the air and expel carbon dioxide. Plants, conveniently need the carbon dioxide to grow and expel oxygen. We complement each other’s needs perfectly.
The LEDs will provide the one missing piece we ourselves can’t physically provide in a closed system – the light. But, as we’ve seen, they can do this so efficiently it will help us increase the yield. How will we get the energy to run the LEDs? There are many means of generating power – kinetic, nuclear, solar, or perhaps with experimentation in the closed environment, through some sort of biofuels created from plant waste. What’s for sure is that the LEDs will draw less power off of whatever grid we’ll be using.
As for soil? Well, we can work with what we’ve got on Earth for the time being, but someday that may change. Scientists have recently been experimenting with a designer transparent soil – made from a synthetic polymer. This polymer is opaque when dry, but when wet down with nutrient rich water it becomes a clear mud for plants to grow in.
Today scientists are using it to get a 3D view of a plant’s roots to track growth and how various diseases and viruses become attached to and threaten crops and the humans that consume them. What kind of soil we’ll have on the Moon or Mars is unclear so this is an interesting possibility.
The Future of Your Pumpkin Pie
With all the experimentation being done now to help feed ourselves more efficiently, it is gradually paving the way for us to be supporting ourselves with healthy, pesticide free fruits and vegetables in a reality where we may either go (or grow) underground or to the stars.
Either way, our future is likely to include the fruits and vegetables so crucial to our diets. Whether we’ll be able to spare any pumpkins for carving or Punkin Chunkin isn’t clear, but I have a firm belief that future humans will want to have fun and not just survive.
With all these burgeoning technologies I’m sure science will find a way to take Punkin’ Chunkin to new (anti-gravity) heights in space.
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