Food for thought – Aussie tech helping NASA grow veggies on the moon

It might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but in the next five years NASA astronauts will be growing veggies on the moon with a little help from Australian scientists.

Key Points

  • Scientists developing gardening in space to feed future astronauts.
  • Orbiting space station astronauts have feasted on capsicums grown in space.
  • Australian scientists experimenting with artificial intelligence gardeners.

One of the biggest challenges for space travel is having finite food and water resources to sustain long journeys. 

If humans ever do travel into outer space for long periods of time, we are going to have to grow our own food – and that means gardening onboard the space craft and at the destination.

In the 2015 film, The Martian, Matt Damon’s character successfully grew potatoes on Mars, until it all went pear-shaped (excuse the pun) putting his survival in danger – but fiction could soon become reality as NASA prepares to have their astronauts growing vegetables on the moon within the next five years.

Plant Habitat-04

This month, the International Space Station astronauts held a “taco bash” to celebrate the harvest of the first chili peppers (we call them capsicums) grown in space.

The vegetables were planted back in July onboard the spacecraft in an experiment known as Plant Habitat-04 and it was one of the most complex plant experiments on the orbiting laboratory.

It wasn’t the first time vegetables had been grown in space. Previous experiments included various types of lettuce, flowering zinnias and even radishes. But capsicums presented the next great challenge for scientists, taking much longer to grow than other vegetables they’ve tried before.

Astronaut Megan McArthur shared on Twitter that she had made her "best space tacos yet: fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes and artichokes, and HATCH CHILLI!".

Some of the capsicums will be sent back to Earth for analysis, while the plants continue to grow on the space station. The SpaceX Crew-3 astronauts, due to launch from NASA's Kennedy Space Centre this month, will conduct a second harvest.

Australian veggie innovation

So where to next? Australian scientists are developing artificial intelligence (AI) for astronauts to use on missions from the moon to Mars to help grow their own fresh food in orbit.

They are currently developing agricultural software that uses sensors to detect early stress in plants being grown onboard space flights so that it can be addressed before it’s too late.

The University of Southern Queensland is adapting technologies it’s developed in broadacre cropping systems, using machine vision to analyse the crop and determine how it is performing.

Robot gardeners on the moon?

The plan to set up crops on the moon is part of a broader plan by NASA to build a station there as a home base for astronauts, who will travel on to other planets.

Growing vegetables there is a must until other tech-based food production methods – such as 3D printed food – become viable.

According to ABC Science, the robot gardener will never look like a human.

"It's very difficult to program a robot with artificial intelligence to behave like a human and to move like a human so it's much more like a series of beams or an arm," USQ’s Dr Humpal said.

The "early plant stress detection using machine vision for food safety in space" project will run for 12 months.

"We are hoping it will go to the moon within the next five years, but it will line up with NASA's timelines and availability of launch craft," Dr Humpal said.

Sources: NASA, News Daily & ABC News