• Researchers are developing an orbital greenhouse where astronauts can grow vegetables
  • The cylindrical shape can adapt to different gravity conditions
  • The module could be used for future Moon or Mars colonization plans

A team of researchers is developing an orbital greenhouse where future astronauts can grow and cultivate their own produce in space. The information provided by the module could be useful for future Moon and Mars mission.

Orbital Greenhouse

Because there is no refrigerator aboard the International Space Station (ISS), fresh produce must be eaten within days after they arrive, otherwise, they might spoil. This means that astronauts have limited access to fresh vegetables.

Previous experiments have demonstrated the possibility of planting produce in microgravity but, they were carried out in greenhouses within the living compartments where there is extremely limited room.

To remedy this dilemma, researchers from Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU), along with scientists from other Tomsk universities, developed a prototype orbital greenhouse where astronauts can grow their own produce.

The vision is for a cylindrical autonomous module that can dock at the ISS. It would take into consideration the conditions that can be found in space such as radiation, gravity, and extreme temperatures and, it would also include smart lighting to help the plants grow, automatic irrigation, hydroponics, and harvesting solutions.

“Another important issue is the selection of necessary and most suitable agricultural crops and their protection against pathogens in microgravity. We offer various types of lettuce, leeks, basil and other crops for cultivation in the module,” head of TPU School of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies, Aleksei Yakolev, said.

As of 2020, the team is preparing the application for the experiment. Should the coordinating council evaluate the experiment’s relevance positively, the team could have funding by 2021.

Human Colonization

So far, the needs of the astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) have to be sent over from Earth via regular shipments. This includes clothing, new experiments and, of course, food. For instance, Northrop Grumman’s 13th resupply mission sent food items such as cheeses, fresh fruits, vegetables and even candies such as Hot Tamales.

While effective, the practice is quite expensive.

With experiments such as TPU’s, it could one day be possible for the astronauts to grow their own food at the ISS. Although it may still take years to be developed fully, it may also prove relevant if there will one day be plans to colonize the Moon or Mars, particularly since the planned module's cylindrical shape should allow it to adapt to different gravity conditions.

Orbital Greenhouse
Image: Plants being cultivated in the autonomous greenhouse. Tomsk Polytechnic University