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Camp Internet's Global Gardening Studies are open to all Camp Expedition Teams. RAIN's Youth Technology Corps members are Expedition Team Leaders for Communities taking part.

AstroCulture and Space Ag

The $60 billion-plus International Space Station is allowing scientists and other researchers to explore and develop food production systems in space that will enable sustained life support systems.

Termed astroculture, these studies hold clues for increasing and sustaining Earth's environmental and public health.

Crops in Space? Absolutely... especially if people are to travel for months and years to other worlds and systems.

It would be impossible, for instance, to send along enough food and water for a team of space explorers on a mission to Mars. The reality is food and water production over a full life cycle is essential for extended space exploration.

But more importantly, space offers extraordinary possibilities for increasing the yield and vitality of food production on Earth and for the generation of self-sustaining life support systems wherever people may live.

Astronauts have been trying to grow plants in space since the early days of space exploration. When the Apollo astronauts explored the Moon, scientists attempted to grow seeds in the lunar soil that was returned to Earth. But with the establishment of the Russian space station Mir and the International Space Station completed last March, agriculture in space took on new dimensions.

Despite all of Mir's technical challenges, the space station delivered the first wheat crop ever grown and harvested in space, thanks to a special Bulgarian-built greenhouse that created the right conditions for growth. Thus, a new age of food production in space was born, and scientists began to see how space technology can positively impact many of Earth's environmental problems.

An advanced AstroCulture™ plant growth unit is helping scientists gain new insights about how to improve food products including crop production. (Courtesy: Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics) Astroculture™, as trademarked by NASA, is a pioneering science that connects people directly with the elements essential to the web of life that depend on healthy, natural processes. Where on Earth, the processes for healthy life are naturally occurring, systems have to be put in place for these same processes to occur in space. And NASA is well along in the study of creating these bioregenerative life support systems capable of indefinitely supporting human and plant life.

The lack of gravity -- essential for plants to develop strong rooting, sunlight, available nutrients, insects (for cross pollination), controlled climate and clean water are all challenges for astroculture. Bioregenerative support systems takes all of these vital elements into consideration.

First of all, humans and plants are ideal companions in space and on Earth. People breathe air and produce carbon monoxide, and plants consume the carbon monoxide to produce oxygen. Humans can also consume edible plants or plant parts for sustenance. This produces waste by-products which can be broken down to supply nourishment for plants.

Given this unique relationship between plants and humans, all that is left for consideration is the supply of energy, regeneration of clean water and the effect of gravity to make it all work. Energy, which must be highly efficient, is provided in the form of light. And clean water comes from re-occurring and self-sustaining natural cleaning and filtration systems inherent to regenerative life support systems.

A space greenhouse creates energy from light sources, which must be as efficient as possible to reduce energy demands. Here, wheat is growing under Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) which are generally used in today's consumer electronics. LEDs save energy by only releasing light in frequencies that plants can use for photosynthesis. (Courtesy: NASA)

The creation of microgravity systems, which would be developed for long-term piloted missions to Mars and other places, would provide the gravitational effects needed for healthy plant growth.

Today, industries and scientists are being allowed to explore and study plant growth and long-term plant production on board the $60 billion International Space Station which launched last May. NASA's Astroculture Commercial project is providing myriad platforms for such study which will also have a huge impact on Earth-based agriculture. In one instance involving microgravity, researchers will be studying and expect to develop custom crops that withstand hostile conditions, resist diseases and require less space in which to grow. According to NASA scientists, the microgravity provides a highly efficient environment for using bacteria to transfer desirable genes such as those that increases a plant's immunity to disease and pestilence.

The life cycle for sustaining human life and plant growth in space. NASA is developing systems that will enable such life-support systems. (Courtesy: NASA)

Simply put, if we can sustain food production in space, then we can sustain human life anywhere in the universe. Plants, like all living things, depend on nourishment and the right living conditions in order to grow. And with a burgeoning population on Earth, astroculture benefits will help us better provide food, sustenance and the required healthy ecosystems essential to promoting public health.