By Matt McIntosh
Canadian researchers making space food production a reality
Food determines how far, and for how long, humans can explore in outer space. While we can ship lots of food from earth to our current space explorers, establishing sustained bases on Mars and other celestial bodies will require agriculture.
Just like Matt Damon in the movie The Martian, we will need to grow our own food far from earth – and more than just potatoes. It’s a tall order to be sure, but there’s already decades of work behind space food production, much of it coming from Canadian researchers.
Matt Damon’s character might have been fictional, but his efforts to grow food and sustain himself in his Martian outpost is not. In fact, it’s long been the focus of researchers at the Controlled Environment Systems (CES) lab in Guelph, Ontario. Mike Dixon, the director of the facility, says much of the work being done at the CES lab is unique in the world of space exploration research – although they actively work alongside NASA, as well as other European partners.
An inconspicuous white building on the outside, the CES lab is filled with sealed chambers, high-intensity light canisters, and other metal hardware used to simulate the pressures and deprivations of extreme and off-Earth environments. This can include high UV radiation exposure, for example, or atmospheric conditions wildly different from typical growing environments on Earth. Seeing how – or if – plants grow in such conditions indicates how they would fare in enclosed production spaces on other planets.
Many things have been learned over the years. From Dixon’s perspective, one of the most profound revelations was that some crops – radish, wheat, soybean, and lettuce specifically – can grow very well in environments where the atmospheric density is very, very thin. There is also research focused on making food more productive, as well as tastier. One of the best ways to do this, Dixon says, is to simply change the colour of light reaching the plant. Experiments with lettuce, for example, show red light produces more and better tasting leaves.
Everything required for food production also has to come from recycled material. According to Dixon, one of the biggest challenges of effectively growing food in space is designing a completely circular system.
“You have to re-use everything – and I mean, everything,” says Dixon. That means nutrients, water, waste, and everything else we take for granted on Earth.
Another challenge, Dixon adds, is figuring out what crops to grow. Determining this means considering what is needed for a balanced vegetarian diet – space meat production is not feasible at this point – but that is also enjoyable to eat. For his own part, Dixon hopes barley will make the list so space explorers will also have the opportunity to continue a truly ancient human tradition – making alcohol.
Advancing our understanding of indoor food production benefits crop growers on earth, too. Lessons about light or different atmospheric conditions can help make greenhouse production more efficient or less environmentally costly. Systems designed for space could be used on harsh environments on Earth, too. Indeed, the CES lab has already worked with Antarctic researchers to run a vegetable-production facility for staff manning a remote research station at the southern pole.
Humankind is reaching ever-further into outer space. But as Dixon reiterates, having to ship food for our space explorers becomes more difficult, and more expensive, the further we go. Figuring out how to grow food on the Moon and Mars will be a major milestone in space exploration, and in the process, will also help sustain us on Earth.