At the dawn of the Space Age, the writers of Star Trek imagined that the problem of food during long-term space missions would simply be taken care of by machines. When Iowa-bred Captain James T. Kirk gets a hankering for a chicken sandwich in season two, for example, he can simply stroll over to something called a food synthesizer and demand one. (His approach to women is remarkably similar.)
Today, the prospect of long-term space travel is closer than ever before, but we still haven’t quite figured out how to pluck protein molecules out of the ether and synthesize them into chicken sandwiches. Not that we’d want to eat out of magic microwaves all the time anyway: Fresh food and plant life play critical roles in modulating human psychology on long, isolating space missions. As a result, space agencies are racing to find out how we can sustain vegetables in some of the least hospitable conditions in the universe.
In just a few years, one of the answers could lie in Antarctica, in a shipping container that also functions as experimental greenhouse of DLR, the German space agency. There, researchers will be experimenting with different kinds of “light diets” tailored to grow bigger and better plants. In preparation, the DLR has spent nearly $20,000 of a three-year contract with the LED lighting company Heliospectra, which two plant physiologists started last year for the purpose of cracking the secret to space food.
“In theory, if you control the environment correctly, you can have even better growth in a controlled environment than outside,” explains Matt Bamsey, a post-doctoral DLR researcher helping build the Antarctica greenhouse. “From a space exploration perspective, LED lighting for plants is really the future.”
Researchers in the shipping container will have to figure out how to grow plants with almost no natural light. If you set up a greenhouse on the moon, you might be able to score some residual light from the sun, but dust storms on Mars can block out sunlight almost entirely, Bamsey explains. Heliospectra, however, makes “light packages” that can isolate just a few select wavelengths and grow plants more efficiently. Whereas fluorescents and even natural light might shine a mix of visible light frequencies, Heliospectra’s LED’s can tailor just the blues or reds to the plants–the colors plants need for photosynthesis.
But how do leafy greens grown under LED lights hold up to the garden variety in a taste test? According to Heliospectra spokesman Chris Steele, at least one blind taste test with basil showed that people preferred the LED-grown herb. The company has also designed light diets for dill, coriander, parsley, and wheat.
The DLR and Heliospectra are only one of several agency research teams trying to hack space horticulture. For several years, NASA has been running the X-Hab innovation challenge, a partnership with several universities that asks students to problem-solve food production and breathable air systems on deep space missions. And this past year, a six-person crew experimented with dozens of space-friendly recipes as part of the HI-SEAS Mars simulation mission in Hawaii. There, on the side of a remote volcano, researchers are still emulating Mars-like conditions, and exploring the food systems they’d need to build in order to survive.
But there’s also another reason for running the greenhouse in at the Germans’ Neumayer Station-III, 1,300 miles from the South Pole. During the winter, only nine researchers live there, and they see few new supplies over a nine-month period.
“[That’s] about the same amount of people on a long-term space flight,” Bamsey explains. The community also represents a perfect natural experiment for seeing how isolated groups of people on Earth might be able to use the technology. In a climate changing future, food security in some remote areas will become more fragile than ever.
“Fresh food has a psychological benefit as well,” Bamsey says. “This is a good example of the way we can push the technology to really help advance how ready they are to be used in terrestrial applications.”