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NASA Research Launches a New Era of Indoor Farming

Shivam Dwivedi
Shivam Dwivedi
The interior of the Biomass Production Chamber at Kennedy replicated the closed growing environment astronauts will use in space or on other planets to grow fresh crops (Credits: NASA)

According to the United Nations, Earth will need to feed an additional 2.3 billion people by 2050, most of whom will be concentrated in urban areas far from farmland. Conventional agriculture may not be able to meet that demand, but NASA has been working on food production both on Earth and in space for decades.

To feed astronauts during long-term space exploration, resources must be stretched to grow plants in space, which includes minimizing water and energy consumption and eliminating soil.

New Generation Indoor Farming:

NASA was the first to use these techniques on the ground, constructing the country's first vertical farm. Technologists stacked rows of hydroponic trays like bookshelves against the walls of a decommissioned hypobaric chamber used to test the Mercury space capsule. Then, using off-the-shelf components, systems for lighting, ventilation, and water circulation were added.

This innovative approach to farming created a foundation for the industry of ‘Controlled Environment Agriculture’, or CEA. It combines plant science and environmental control to optimize plant growth and efficiency, with vertical growth structures frequently incorporated. Technology allows for the removal of contaminants from crop water and the delivery of precise nutrient balances. Artificial lighting only emits the required wavelengths at the appropriate time, intensity, and duration. While environmental controls keep the temperature and humidity at ideal levels.

According to Nate Storey, chief science officer at Plenty Unlimited, one of several companies building on NASA's plant-growth research, this approach could help feed burgeoning future generations.

Redefining Data Farm

NASA has been researching bio-regenerative life-support systems since its inception, with plants recycling waste, producing food and oxygen, and removing carbon dioxide. The Closed Ecological Life Support System Programme began with NASA's Life Sciences Division at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which funded university research to identify the best plants and their ideal growth conditions, and the agency built growth chambers to expand on those findings.

The method results in plants that are fresher, healthier, and more flavorful. According to Storey, uniform lighting and data-driven controls over all other variables related to a plant community make growth rates and output predictable. When young plants are harvested while they are more tender and flavorful, the produce tastes better than when plants are allowed to fully mature.

Vertical farms aren’t the only CEA businesses benefiting from NASA research. Potato farmers now use nutrient film technique in greenhouses. The agency first pioneered this method for root zone crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and peanuts, said Wheeler, and it’s proven itself with record-breaking potato yields.

Soil-growing methods typically yield five or six minitubers per plant. “We’ll harvest two or three times a week for a 12-week harvest period in three crops per year. In a nutrient film system, you can get 30 to 50 minitubers per plant,” said Matt Barrow, greenhouse manager with CSS Farms.

As NASA continues to advance life-support systems in preparation for missions to the Moon and Mars, these will support the further growth of the CEA industry.

(Source: NASA)

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