NASA has unveiled an inflatable greenhouse that astronauts could one day use to grow food on Mars or the moon.
The prototype unit is designed to support crop production, while also recycling water and revitalising air with oxygen.
“We’re working with a team of scientists, engineers and small businesses at the University of Arizona to develop a closed-loop system,” said Dr Ray Wheeler, a lead scientist at NASA’s life support research centre. “The approach uses plants to scrub carbon dioxide, while providing food and oxygen.”
The plants in the unit turn carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts into oxygen and add nutrient salts and oxygen to water that flows through the root zone.
It’s hoped that astronauts would be able to locate a water source at the lunar or Martian landing site. Alternatively, the water could come from supplies transported from Earth.
“We’re mimicking what the plants would have if they were on Earth and make use of these processes for life support,” said Dr. Gene Giacomelli of the University of Arizona. “The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth.”
The cylindrical prototype, which is 18 feet long and 8 feet wide, would be buried underground in order to protect the plants from radiation.
“We’ve been successful in using electric LED (light emitting diode) lighting to grow plants,” Wheeler said. “We also have tested hybrids using both natural and artificial lighting.”
One of the next steps for engineers is to develop computer models that can automate the environment, providing a constant level of oxygen.