NASA this week has unveiled an inflatable greenhouse that has been designed to help astronauts grow food on Mars or the moon. The greenhouse is still in prototype stage, and it’s designed to support the growing of crops as well as the recycling of water, which is a vital resource on other planets.
Dr. Ray Wheeler, one of the head scientists at the NASA Life Support Research Facility, announced that he is working with a team of engineers and scientists, as well as small businesses, at the University of Arizona to complete the project. The aim is to create what he calls a “closed-loop system,” which will use plants to get rid of carbon dioxide, while at the same time providing astronauts with both oxygen and food.
As well as converting the carbon dioxide that is exhaled by astronauts, the plants will add nutrients and oxygen to the water which will flow through the soil. The idea is to mimic the function of plants on Earth, which perform these exact processes to support oxygen-breathing life on our planet. Dr. Gene Giacomelli from the University of Arizona explained how the entire system of the inflatable greenhouse represents, on a much smaller scale, the biological systems that we rely on here on Earth.
The prototype, which is cylindrical in shape, is eight feet in width and 18 feet in length. It would be designed to be buried into the ground to protect the plants from the vast amount of radiation in space. The light source would not come from the sun, but instead from an LED light. Some tests have been performed which harness some natural light, though this will unlikely be used as a primary source given they must be buried beneath the ground.
The next step, according to the scientists, is developing new computer models which will automate the environment, and create a constant level of oxygen that will allow humans to live on the moon, where there is no atmosphere at all.
The unveiling comes after President Trump jokingly announced an ambitious plan to get humans to Mars in his first term. During a conversation with astronauts on the International Space Station, Trump asked astronaut Peggy Whitson about the timeframe of achieving a manned trip to Mars. Whitson responded by citing Trump’s own bill, which sets out a plan to get astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.
The President responded:
“Well we want to try and do it during my first term, or at worst, during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little, OK?”
The conversation, aired live on television, was held to honor Ms. Whitson’s record-breaking achievement. The astronaut has spent over 534 days in space so far, breaking the previous record. The President was accompanied by his daughter, Ivanka Trump, and astronaut Kate Rubins, to congratulate Ms. Whitson.
A manned trip to Mars has been considered by NASA for many years, though the organization has lacked the funding and political incentive to begin the process of planning a trip.