In Dean Devlin’s new SYFY series, The Ark, humanity’s last hope is aboard an interstellar ship bound for a Proxima Centauri b. The plan was for the crew to sleep for the duration, sound asleep in specially designed stasis pods, until they landed in their new home, but space is a dangerous place. A disaster en route effectively killed part of the crew separating them from the rest of the ship, all others waking up. Now they must survive the ravages of space for a year in order to reach their destination alive.
If you expect your passengers to hibernate for the entire trip, you don’t pack a lot of snacks. If the Ark One crew hopes to survive longer than the short term, they’ll need to grow food, but that’s easier said than done. On Earth, growing food is as simple as planting a seed in the ground. The planet provides all the sunlight and nutrients a plant needs. All you really have to do is stay away and give them some water from time to time.
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Our planet is so good at growing things that they will appear where you don’t want them if you’re not careful, but this is only possible thanks to the robust ecosystem that has built itself on our planet. . The vegetables in your garden owe as much to the microbes and nutrients in every handful of soil as they do to you. On a spaceship, the Moon or another planet, explorers will not benefit from a few billion years of biological activity to ensure the happiness of their plants.
Despite these challenges, humanity is rapidly returning to the Moon and we are destined for more distant horizons, possibly in the not-too-distant future. If we want to launch ourselves outside the cosmic nest, we will need reliable systems to manufacture food. To that end, the European Space Agency (ESA) has teamed up with Solsys Mining, a Norway-based lunar farming company, to find ways to turn lunar soil into fertilizer to grow food in space.
The project is based on previous research that used lunar regolith collected by Apollo astronauts to grow thalus cress in the laboratory. The scientists managed to grow the hardy plants in a substrate made of moon soil mixed with a cocktail of water and nutrients, but they didn’t grow as well and weren’t as healthy as the controls.
This initial study proved that plants could be grown using lunar regolith as a growth medium, provided they receive the nutrients and water they need. It also showed there was room to grow, if you’ll forgive me the pun. One of the main challenges faced by scientists is that the lunar soil packs tightly when wet, making it difficult for plants to root. Otherwise, lunar soil is a good source of nutrients for plant growth, lacking only sufficient nitrogen. Lunar astronauts will find themselves surrounded by an endless sea of lunar dirt that they won’t be able to use – or at least not as well as they’d like – because it doesn’t play well in a jar.
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The new ESA project seeks to have the best of both worlds, quite literally, by extracting nutrients from lunar soil and using them as fertilizer in a hydroponic system, which would allow plants to grow more freely. The current proposal involves a mechanical sorting area at one end that would select pieces of lunar dirt and pass them to a central processing unit. There, nutrients would be extracted from the soil before being dissolved in water and pumped into a hydroponic garden.
“This work is essential for future long-term lunar exploration. Achieving a sustainable presence on the Moon will involve using local resources and gaining access to nutrients found in lunar regolith with the potential to help grow plants The current study represents proof of principle using available lunar regolith simulants, paving the way for more detailed research in the future,” said ESA materials and process engineer Malgorzata Holynska. in a report.
Already, the Solsys team has successfully grown beans using simulated lunar regolith. The next steps will be to test the system with the real thing and, finally, the Moon!
Hopefully, we’ll perfect our interplanetary farming techniques before we set sail for another star. In space, anything that can go wrong will. The Ark airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on SYFYand flows on Peacock the next day!
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