It has been announced that NASA will be funding teams at the University of Arizona in their development of technologies that could be used to harvest water and grow crops in space.
Making Food and Water Available to Astronauts
Water and food are a necessity for astronauts exploring space. Given that every kilogram of supplies taken on board spacecraft has to be carefully considered due to the limited space and fuel needed to lift the extra cargo. Scientists and engineers who work on space programs are constantly innovating ways to reduce the load needed to be taken on board.
Recently, NASA has funded two teams of researchers at the College of Engineering and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, at the University of Arizona, who plan to search for water and grow food in space. The teams could significantly enhance food and water availability to astronauts while reducing the weight carried onboard spacecraft.
The missions will first explore how water could be harvested from the surface of the moon, as well as focusing on developing improved methods for microgravity crop production.
Could the Moon’s South Pole Be a Source of Water?
The moon’s south pole which has remained in shadow for billions of years contains craters that show evidence of potentially holding water. This water source could prove vital to supporting human life during space missions, as well as for creating fuel for robotics missions. It could also be used as a radiation shield as well as a source of thermal energy storage.
This month NASA announced that they awarded almost $1 million to a total of eight university teams to support the development of new techniques that could be used to seek out and obtain water from these dark craters.
Two teams of researchers from the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Arizona were awarded $114,000 to fund their project that plans to combine lasers with FemtoSats to search for and extract water.
While using lasers to explore these dark craters for water seems simple, the team needed a cost-effective and low-risk method of testing the power and communication efficacy of the laser signals on the moon. To do this, the team is employing the use of FemtoSats, which are small, disposable satellites that measure just a few inches in length and width. FemtoSats offer a safe way to explore these craters without risking damage to more complex and expensive equipment.
Crop Production in Space
The major challenge facing scientists wanting to grow crops in space is the lack of gravity. Water is a vital component in ensuring the success of crop yield, however, without gravity, the behavior of water completely changes.
This makes it difficult for scientists to maintain the correct balance of water and nutrients that the roots need in order to grow a healthy plant. It also prevents oxygen levels from being maintained at the correct levels.
While many projects have taken place over the years which have achieved varying levels of success, the issues created by the changing behavior of water have prevented success in creating sustained food production.
A team of researchers at the University of Arizona has been awarded $1.12 million from NASA to fund the development of a system that can effectively deliver the correct levels of water and nutrients needed to ensure sustained crop growth. The team aims to establish an effective and reliable system for growing a variety of crops in the microgravity conditions found in space, as well as being compatible with growing crops in limited spaces, such as onboard spacecraft.
The scientists involved in the project believe their work may also be useful in improving food production processes on Earth too.