Reworded: The quest to cultivate food in space: utilizing farm robots, flavor capsules, and zero-gravity beer.
Three robots are tending to a vegetable garden on the rooftop of the student pavilion at the University of Melbourne. As I observe, a mechanical arm hovers over the crops, similar to a fairground claw machine, and dispenses a precise amount of water onto the plants.
The green plants, which include cos lettuce, basil, coriander, and kale with holes, may seem like typical Earth plants. However, they are actually being used as models for a pioneering project to cultivate fresh produce in outer space.
The head of the project, Professor Sigfredo Fuentes, bends down and plucks a minuscule caterpillar from a kale leaf. “Last week, we experienced a significant infestation of cabbage moths, but fortunately, the kale serves as a decoy to protect the other vegetables.”
Professor Fuentes is a member of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space, a seven-year project involving five Australian universities and 38 other organizations, including NASA. The goal of this project is to develop fresh and nutritious food for space travel that does not require thermostabilization, irradiation, or freeze-drying. In the words of Fuentes, “It’s like the gruel they eat in The Matrix on the spaceship. That’s what we’re dealing with up there.”
Scientists are working to find a more suitable alternative to space gruel for longer space expeditions. This is due to Nasa’s future plans of sending humans to the moon and Mars, which will require a sustainable food source in space. Essentially, the goal is to be able to grow food continuously in space.
“Consider time and weight when planning for a trip to Mars. The round trip takes three years, and each astronaut is limited to 850kg of weight on the spacecraft, including all supplies and equipment,” explains Fuentes. “It is crucial to develop food options that are not only nutritious and delicious, but also environmentally friendly and sustainable.”
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Difficulties can occur when individuals are required to consume the same food repeatedly, even if there is a slight variation in the options. Research has demonstrated the significance of having a diverse range of food for astronauts. The feeling of being tired of the same menu, especially while residing in a confined space with no natural light, can result in a decrease in appetite, weight loss, and inadequate nutrition, among other problems.
The University of Melbourne researchers, including Dr. Claudia Gonzalez Viejo and Dr. Nir Lipovetzky, are utilizing farmbots, digital sensors, AI, and facial analysis to study the growth of food and its effect on our eating experience in different conditions, using open-source robotic farming technology to solve a riddle.
Each farmbot can be programmed to plant seeds, then irrigate them efficiently, harvest crops, spray for disease, and even record things such as temperature and growth rates. Lipovetzky wanders over and hands me a delicate circuit board that looks very expensive. I try not to drop it. “This is our e-nose,” he says. “It can ‘smell’ different aroma profiles given off by the plants. Combined with the soil sensors on the farmbots, it lets us see exactly what each plant needs at any given time.”
Fuentes explains that the goal is to automate all tasks for extended space missions. This includes the concept of a “smart” fridge that utilizes plants to produce various items such as antibiotics, painkillers, and plastics. The e-nose technology is able to detect when supplies are low and will automatically begin growing the necessary food and materials. As a result, astronauts will not need to possess knowledge in agriculture as everything is managed through AI.
The group is also exploring the possibility of producing 3D-printed food using natural ingredients, along with microencapsulation techniques. “It’s like the three-course meal gum from Willy Wonka’s factory,” Fuentes jokes. “With microencapsulation, we can release various flavors that will reach your taste buds at different intervals.”
Research is ongoing for pill meals inspired by Wonka, but Nasa has long known about the advantages of microencapsulation. It is uncertain when this technology will be utilized in space.
Our next destination is an ‘immersion room’ located within the university. This room is semi-circular in shape and features a curved wall that spans 180 degrees. The team utilizes this space to project a close-up image of the Earth, taken from a low orbit, that rotates continuously. In the center of the room, there is a ‘zero-gravity chair’ illuminated by a soothing blue light. This chair is designed to simulate positions experienced in microgravity and is the main attraction for my visit. However, I was surprised to find that it is not as advanced as I had initially thought – it can be best described as a comfortable recliner.
According to Fuentes, this method is surprisingly the most effective way to simulate the impacts of microgravity on Earth. And the best part? It’s only around $100, making it perfect for naps.
The chair reclines me to a 170-degree angle, slightly beyond balance, causing a slight sensation in my inner ear. In this position, all I can see is the Earth’s curvature, slowly rotating in darkness. Suddenly, a tablet is presented to me. This is part of the ARC Centre’s research, which focuses on measuring the sensory impact of food in space. To accurately study this, individuals must consume food in conditions that mimic space. Today, I am sampling Fuentes’ special project: space beer.
The tablet’s camera monitors my blood pressure, heart rate, and facial expressions while I drink Heineken from a child-sized sippy cup in an upside down position. Since the team’s homemade beer is not yet ready, we are using a commercial substitute for this experiment. The entire process is controlled by a biosensor application. I log my observations on the tablet by selecting emojis from a range that convey emotions from slight contentment to extreme fear.
The data will be utilized by the team to create algorithmic models, known as digital twins, which can forecast how individuals may respond to specific plant-based foods while in space. This goes beyond just taste, but also considers the emotions and reactions that may arise in those who consume them. Ideally, this information will be incorporated into NASA’s Artemis program for extended missions to the moon and Mars.
It is difficult to determine when we will witness the results of the team’s work in space. Interstellar farming cannot be rushed. However, the project has a seven-year timeline to gather data and evaluate the success of different plant species. This aligns well with Nasa’s plans to send human missions to Mars in the next decade.
According to Fuentes, it is not solely about the nutrients. The team is currently focusing on strawberries, as their scent can elicit an emotional reaction, which is crucial for astronauts. In the absence of light, strawberries bring a sense of familiarity.