LIT develop plants to support space travel and life on Mars

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Plants eventually destined for life on Mars and cultivated by Scientists at Limerick Institute of Technology’s CELLS (Controlled Environment Laboratory for Life Sciences) Research Group will arrive on Antartica in the coming weeks to be tested in extreme temperatures that replicate those of the red planet.

A state-of-the-art plant cultivation facility known as the EDEN-ISS Future Exploration Greenhouse (FEG), which was also designed and built by scientists by the Limerick scientists and their EDEN ISS partners for the purposes of exploring new plant cultivation technologies for safe food production in space, will house the growing plants and will be located beside Neumayer-Station III.

LIT is part of the EDEN ISS consortium which is comprised of 14 leading European, Canadian and US-American universities, research institutes, corporations and SMEs and is funded under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Funding Programme. These experts in human spaceflight and Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) have been tasked with developing the technologies the will allow for sustainable food production facilities on the Moon and on Mars.

The consortium led by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) Institute of Space Systems in Bremen has been developing a self-sustaining greenhouse for use by astronauts, to cultivate their own fresh fruits and vegetables beyond terrestrial grounds.

On October 31, 2017 the FEG left Germany for its two-month journey to Antarctic. A key priority for the project will be to test the long-duration operational efficiency and cultivation output of the facility in an extreme environment analogous to those found on our earth’s celestial neighbours.

More than 15 different crop species were selected for the experiment campaign in Antarctica including three tall growing plants - tomato, pepper and cucumber, three different types of lettuce - two green, one red leaf, radish, spinach, a variety of herbs (basil, chives, parsley, mint, coriander) and strawberry. Seeds from a number of add-on crops, crops that are not part of the current production plan, were also taken to Antarctica such as cabbage, cauliflower and red beet.

Michelle McKeon Bennett is the Head of Department of Applied Science at LIT, founder of the CELLS Research Group and Principal Investigator of the LIT workpackages of the four year EDEN ISS project, which extends from March 2015 to December 2018.

Ms McKeon Bennett said, “At LIT we have been cultivating the plants chosen for use beyond terrestrial grounds since 2009 in our purpose built research facility for space and plant life sciences known as the Controlled Environment Laboratory for Life Sciences (CELLS). We were tasked with ensuring the plants grow and thrive in space, and in other environments with limited resources. We have also worked to ensure that the food produced in the EDEN ISS project is of high organoleptic and nutritional quality and is safe to consume by explorers, astronauts and eventually space colonists.”

“The cultivation system used for these plants is unlike any other systems used today in standard greenhouse horticulture, as all resources needed to grow the plants must be recycled from within the facility itself, including air, nutrients, water and energy.

“It has also been our responsibility to test these plants to ensure that they have a nutritional value, are palatable and of course are not producing any toxins,” she added.

Ms McKeon Bennett who was seconded to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre (KSC) in 2003 as a research fellow for more than a year explained, “In Antarctica, the EDEN ISS test facility or FEG will house the plants tested in LIT and will undergo a one-year test campaign, led by DLR scientist Paul Zabel. These plants will also provide fresh food to the over-wintering crew of the Neumayer III Antarctic station, operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), an EDEN ISS partner.

“The knowledge that will be gained during this test campaign, will pave the way for growing food in space, and in other environments with limited resources. During the next nine months LIT will monitor the progress of the plants in the Antarctic test facility and give advice to those caring for the plants as required,” she said.

“We expect to have samples from these plants returned to LIT next October and November for further analysis and testing, and so that we can compare data with that obtained during the pre-mission phase in LIT.”

Dr. Peter Downey, a member of the LIT research team, who trained in NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre of 18 months as part of his PhD, added that the systems and technologies tested as part of EDEN ISS will have benefits far beyond space travel.

“The technologies developed as part of this research would hopefully contribute to short- and long-term solutions for addressing global food shortages arising from changing environmental parameters due to climate change, and may also lead to new commercial opportunities for technology enhanced cultivation, such as Vertical Farming, in cities and local communities.” he said.

“As well as producing safe food for consumption, a key component of this work will be to explore the possibility of enhancing the quality of the food produced by utilising the environment to increase the production of compounds, such as anthocyanins, that have positive benefits to our health. Positive enhancements to food growth on Earth can have a global impact; from increasing food security and sustainability, to the fight against malnutrition.”

The facility is expected to be in Antarctica before the end of January, where it will remain beside Neumayer-Station III for an estimated nine months. After such time, further analysis and testing of the cultivated crops will take place at partner laboratories.