Scientists are finding sustainable ways to grow highly nutritious foods in microgravity, so that space explorers can find an easily available supply of greens daily.
On an upcoming trip facilitated by the Flight Opportunities Program, Space Lab Technologies, a part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, will test its microgravity lilypond, an aquatic chamber for growing edible aquatic plants in space. Lillipond will be launched in an upcoming New Shepard discovery of Blue Origin, along with many other technologies selected for testing. The payloads will fly into space and test several minutes of microgravity before returning to Earth, giving researchers valuable data on how their technology is performing.
The Lillipond Microgravity Growth Chamber uses a capillary action to provide a stable water surface on which ducks (and possibly other vegetables, such as young greens) can grow. LED panels provide an efficient source of light, and a rotating salad screen helps separate water from plants when it is ready to harvest. (Courtesy: Space Lab Technologies)
Duckweed (also known as water lentils) produces a large amount of nutrients in small quantities – and the water grown on it can be recycled for the next crop. (Courtesy: Space Lab Technologies)
Said Christine Escobar, vice president of the space laboratory and principal investigator for microgravity Lillipond.
Given these parameters, Duckweed (also known as water lentils) was focused on as a testing laboratory. With their high protein content (up to 45%) and a rich supply of antioxidants, amino acids and omega-3s, crunchy vegetables are sometimes called superfoods. Escobar said these fast-growing plants are ideal for space because they don’t need soil or other growing media – meaning less material, less mass, and less waste for resource-intensive space campaigns. But the right technology is needed to deliver on the promises of such factories.
Escobar explained, “The two biggest problems with growing an aquatic plant floating in space are providing air to a stable water surface and harvesting the plant.”
In the absence of gravity, getting water in place can be a challenge. To overcome this problem, Space Lab began developing Lillipond microgravity in 2017 with funding from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research / Small Business Technology Transfer Program (SBIR / STTR) in collaboration with the University of Colorado in Boulder. The shallow, closely stacked growth tray provides a stable water surface on which the plant grows, with water distribution through an open capillary channel and LED panel providing an efficient source of light. When the plants are ready to eat, a rotating sieve separates them from the water, which can be recycled for the next crop.
Escobar stated, “The more we explore, the more the resources used are reused, recycled and replenished.
After the next test flight, the Space Lab will use video data to verify the performance of its development room, and make any necessary design changes before proposing the technology for orbital testing at the space station.
“Sub-orbital flights facilitated by flight opportunities give us the ability to develop our technology at a much lower cost before proceeding to the next stage,” said Escobar.
Other techniques in New Shepherd
Lilypond and seven other payloads from Flight Opportunities will fly into space in a New Shepard capsule, and another experiment combined with rocket boosters will test a set of precise lunar landing techniques developed by NASA. Many innovations have also been implemented in the first missions to support aviation mission opportunities, part of NASA’s Safe and Accurate Landing – Integrated Capability Development Project (SPLICE).