Space exploration is the great untapped frontier of the next generation. All those rocks, planet, comets and other space bits hurtling around the solar system promise a rich haul to the first people to claim them.
We may have taken a bit of a break in our adventures in space as a species since the end of the cold war, but ambitious new players are already making a push to get themselves into space. Up and coming global economies like China and India have space programs aiming to reach the moon and beyond.
But it’s one thing to send a probe into space to take, admittedly, very pretty pictures of distant worlds. It’s another thing entirely to send human beings out there. For one thing, humans need to be fed and won’t last very long past the moon if they don’t get regular meals. For projects such as Mars One, which aspires to build the first permanent human settlement on Mars this is a big problem.
A Great Big Pit of Nothing
While physicists may argue otherwise, space is for the most part, well - empty space. And even when you get to other planets the soil, if there even is any, is not suitable for Earth plants. One option might be to continually ferry supplies via space ship from the Earth to any bases set up on the Moon, Mars or elsewhere, much as is currently done to the International Space Station.
However, launches into space are expensive and difficult. Worse of all, they leave any nascent human colonies out in the solar system completely dependent on supplies from home. Should the supplies stop being sent for any reason, the colonists would be stranded without food.
That is why it is essential that any extended space missions find ways to become self-sufficient in food generation for their own security and economy. Traditional farming methods require lots of space. While there is certainly lots of unused space on the Moon or Mars, protecting it from the harsh conditions outside a sealed colony would be very expensive.
That’s why space bound agencies are increasingly looking at Hydroponics as a means of producing food in space. Hydroponics is a method of agriculture that involves growing food without soil in a nutrient rich, liquid solution. Typically this is done in a closed system, such as a greenhouse like environment.
Hydroponics certainly isn’t cheap. Building a system sufficiently insulated from outside problems such as pests, weeds and unfavourable weather conditions is certainly a much bigger outlay than ploughing fields the old fashioned way, but it does allow for the reliable growing of vegetables in areas and climates, such as deserts and arid climates, that would struggle to support conventional farming. It is already used commercially to produce high value crops and benefits from the fact that, provided the temperature and light is controlled in the growing area, that crops can be grown all year round out of season.
This sort of closed system is the exact sort of thing that will be needed as various space programs reach further into the universe. Space ships and colonies will need to produce food for their crew and inhabitants hydroponically. By being effectively insulated from the harsh conditions outside the vehicle or settlement, humans will be able to provide for their food needs, not to mention the valuable role plants have in purifying air.
NASA, the American space agency has conducted a huge number of experiments based on this goal of providing a means for extended space missions to feed themselves. In the process they have to overcome, not just the difficult of growing the plants hydroponically, but to face the additional challenges of growing in low, or no gravity areas and in how to insulate plants from the deadly cosmic rays that the Earth's ozone layer protects against.
And it’s not just space where hydroponics can be expected to play centre stage. If global warming predictions turn into reality, agriculture back on earth might start to employ more hydroponics based farms to meet the demand for food as unpredictable weather patterns continue to cause droughts, floods and desertification across the planet.