Astronauts, you had better like salad.
AP News reported last week that a team of scientists at Germany’s Neumayer Station III in Antarctica had successfully grown their first crop of produce without any soil, sunlight, or pesticides. The goal of the project was to explore food growing methods for use on outer space missions.
In total the researchers harvested eight pounds of salad greens, including swiss chard, 18 cucumbers, and 70 radishes — enough for quite the veg-heavy feast. And this crop just the beginning. The German Aerospace Center said last Thursday that its scientists hope to harvest up to 11 pounds of produce per week by May.
The vegetables were grown inside a shipping container, which arrived in the Antarctic in January of 2018. The plants are grown through aeroponics, a method of cultivation that doesn’t require soil or sunlight. Instead, plants receive nutrients via a liquid (made of nutrient solution and filtered water piped into the greenhouse) sprayed onto their roots, and bask in LED lights in air that’s enriched with CO2. The growing system and greenhouse are part of the “Eden ISS” project, in association with the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
Aeroponic farming is beginning to enter the home and specialty food markets, thanks to startups like Grove and AeroFarms. Since they rely on aeroponic mists and LED lights instead of sunlight and soil, these growing systems can support produce throughout the entire year, and in variable weather conditions. Including, apparently, the -20 °C (-4 °F) chill of Antarctica.
This successful first harvest is a boost for scientists researching ways to grow produce on interplanetary missions where astronauts would be confined to tight quarters for several years. NASA already grew lettuce on the International Space Station earlier this year, but there are only so many salads you can eat before monotony sets in. This update from Antarctica shows that astronauts could replicate this growing system in space and cultivate a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in their ships — and possibly, someday, even on Mars or the Moon.
NASA estimates that four crew members would need 24,000 pounds of food to sustain themselves on a three-year journey to Mars. Which can get very heavy and take up a lot of space. NASA is already working on light, durable packaging for interplanetary missions, but with a viable aeroponic system, they might not have to pack quite so much. Astronauts could grow at least a portion of their food on their ship, which would lighten the load (since there’s no soil required) and also give them access to fresh produce. Because freeze-dried ice cream must get old after a while.
This isn’t the only technology that might give astronauts more culinary options in space. The Japanese company Open Meals is working towards teleporting food through digitization and connected 3D bioprinters. If they reach their goal, astronauts could theoretically be snacking on tuna nigiri (or whatever else tickled their fancy) while orbiting the red planet. At least for now, though, they’ll have to settle for salad. Lots and lots of salad.