AstroPlant is an educational citizen science project with the European Space Agency to engage a new generation of space farmers, collect data and ideas for agriculture on Mars, develop open source research equipment, and create awareness of regenerative and closed-loop life support systems.
When the first men landed on the moon, they brought everything they needed with them – food, water, and supplies. But with a $10,000 cost per pound sent into space, scientists recognized that it is not sustainable to continue hauling everything astronauts need for their missions into space with them. For instance, a trip to Mars, which would take about three years, would mean $240,000,000 to send food supplies. Talk about high shipping costs!
The European Space Agency (ESA) founded MELiSSA, or Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative, to solve this problem. This project, founded in 1989, is intended to reduce the cargo needed for human missions to the Moon and Mars with an artificial ecosystem. This specialized greenhouse would sustainably produce food and air for astronauts.
On December 4, experts from lab communities, universities, aeronautical, electronic, and startup professionals will gather to talk about strategies to make this vision a reality. The ESA Innovation Exchange AstroPlant Project Workshop will be held at ESTEC, ESA’s technical heart in Noordwijk, The Netherlands.
Raffaela Pappalardo at the European Space Agency Strategy and Innovation office within the Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration Directorate explained the key issues this event will address:
What are the synergies between AstroPlant and space exploration?
“ESA is teaming up with enthusiasts to build a desktop greenhouse for people to grow plants at home and in classrooms to test potential crops for space. ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative team, MELiSSA, has been working for over 27 years to create ecosystems for astronauts. They fine-tune how microorganisms, chemicals, catalysts, algae and plants interact to process waste and deliver unending supplies of oxygen, water and food. Getting the data we need would take centuries because scientists would need to grow each plant themselves. Using a citizen-science initiative is new for ESA but has great potential.
We are preparing to explore deep space and live and work there. We aim to return to the Moon and then to go further to Mars. In order to be able to one day grow plants, we need to have a system such as MELiSSA and understand better the behaviour of plants. Long duration human missions cannot be performed without regenerative life support systems that will drastically cut the amount of logistics needed to support a crew. Without recycling, an estimated 30 tons of supplies would be required to sustain a manned Mars mission. MELiSSA is, therefore, a very strong niche in which Europe can make a major contribution to exploration.”
How can we stimulate innovation and shared knowledge for planet Earth and beyond?
“Through activities such as AstroPlant, you come up with a solution that is terrestrial but has a use in space… Investigating how to make [space sustainability] work encountered many similarities with ground-based environmental problems such as waste and water treatment, so technology developed through MELiSSA also offers solutions to global problems of sustainable development.”
How can AstroPlant help increase the agricultural efficiency of Earth?
“Back on Earth, global climate change is affecting agriculture, and understanding how plants respond in general to different conditions and to stress and adapt at genetic and molecular levels means we can help to increase agricultural efficiency in general.
Space is an extreme environment just like places on earth where there is scarcity…[As we] learn more about process and technology for space, things can improve on earth.”
You can find out more about AstroPlant and how to participate in the project here.