One small step for your salad, one giant leap for farming in space

Robotic farms could keep astronauts nourished and happy on a long-haul mission to Mars.

When we dreamed of becoming astronauts one day, we have to admit that the fantasy didn’t include eating our veggies.

An astronaut in a white spacesuit floating and holding a head of romaine lettuce with the top of the Earth in the background.

But growing greens in space is actually a top priority for scientists, with ambitious missions planned for as early as the 2030s, like NASA’s Mars exploration.

Since that little jaunt would take three years round-trip, astronauts will need more robust options than freeze-dried pouches to stay healthy, per The Guardian.

Now, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space (yes, that’s the name) is taking $35m in funding over seven years to grow a new solution.

At the University of Melbourne, researchers are experimenting with:

  • Farmbots — robotic farming machines — that can plant and irrigate seeds, harvest crops, spray pesticides, and monitor plant growth and temperature with soil sensors.
  • Organic materials that can be used to 3D-print food, and microencapsulation techniques to incrementally release flavors to control the taste and smell of food.

And it doesn’t stop at leafy greens — astronauts deserve a little fun, too, so scientists are even looking into brewing beer.

Taste test

Though NASA has already managed to grow flowers and greens on the space station with its Vegetable Production System (AKA Veggie), all this tech faces a host of challenges — the obvious one being the whole no gravity thing.

But there are other obstacles for scientists trying to solve the food problem, like spacecraft weight limits which give each astronaut ~1.87k pounds, including all gear and food.

Not to mention the most important part of eating: enjoying it. That’s why the university’s team is employing AI and facial analysis to measure blood pressure, heart rate, and facial expressions via a biosensor app.

That data can then be fed to algorithms to better predict how astronauts might react to food in space.

Ultimately, though, we’re not sure what all the fuss is about. Why would you need anything else when we already have Dippin’ Dots?

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