NASA Funds Research into Food Production on Deep Space Missions

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield maintaining Biolab in Europe’s Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station. Biolab is an experiment workstation tailored for research on biological samples such as micro-organisms, cells, tissue cultures, plants and small invertebrates. The unit features a centrifuge that creates simulated gravity to compare how samples react to weightlessness and artificial gravity. (Credit; NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

As NASA contemplates deep space missions to the moon and Mars, the space agency faces increasing challenges in keeping its astronauts physically and mentally healthy.

One of the key elements in that challenge is fresh food. Currently, fresh produce is supplied periodically to astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) on resupply ships. Crew members have also grown small quantities of vegetables on board.

Resupply becomes a more difficult task on deep space missions due to distance. Thus, astronauts will need to grow more of their own food. Last week, NASA announced three Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) awards to advance that goal.

The projects selected for funding included:

  • A Robust Biofilm-Biomat Reactor for Conversion of Mission-Relevant Feedstocks to Products — Sustainable Bioproducts, LLC and Montana State University;
  • Tailoring the Solar Spectrum for Enhanced Crop Yield for Space Missions — UbiQD and the University of Arizona; and,
  • MarsOasis – An Efficient Autonomously Controlled Martian Crop Production System — Space Lab Technologies and the University of Colorado.

The STTR phase II awards will allow the partnerships to continue work they began under phase I funding. The new awards are worth up to $750,000 over two years.

Using Fungi as Feed Stock

Sustainable Bioproducts (SBP) and Montana State University are developing a bioreactor that grows filamentous fungi in the form of biofilms.

“SBP has shown that the system can be used to convert a multitude of mission available feedstocks into dense, easily harvestable biomats,” the proposal summary stated. “Implementation of SBP’s specialized technology will enable the closure of life support loops, particularly waste streams, while providing mission critical products such as nutritional and appetizing foods, fuels, pharmaceuticals and building materials.”

In addition to deep space missions, the bioreactors could be used “in situations where protein-rich food is needed, such as civilian needs in developing nations, during catastrophes such as earthquakes and floods, and food for military operations. It is expected that governmental agencies such as the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture], FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and DOD [Department of Defense] will be interested in the technology.”

A third partner in the project is BioServe Space Technologies, a research institute at the University of Colorado. BioServe has “extensive experience in designing, fabricating and implementing biosystems in space,” the summary stated.

More Food With Better Lighting

UbiQD and the University of Arizona are working to improve food production in space by enhancing the lighting conditions in their Mars-Lunar Greenhouse prototype.

“Ultimately, the goals are for UbiQD to install a down-conversion film composed of quantum dots (QDs) into a solar collecting/fiber optic system to not only provide higher quality PAR spectrum than currently using, but by converting the high concentration of UV photons to visible photons, UbiQD would be able to dramatically increase the intensity of the PAR spectrum and provided to the plants and the quality of the spectrum will also enhance the efficiency of crop growth,” the proposal summary stated.

The technology could be used commercially to enhance crop production in greenhouses and indoor farms. The transparent surfaces of the greenhouse structure could also produce renewable energy.

An Oasis on Mars

Researchers at Space Lab Technologies and the University of Colorado are developing a greenhouse that makes use of the unique conditions on Mars to grow food for future explorers of the Red Planet.

“MarsOasis™ includes several innovative features relative to the state of the art space growth chambers.  It can operate on the Mars surface or inside of a habitat.  The growth volume maximizes available growth area and supports a variety of crop sizes, from seeding through harvest.  It utilizes in-situ CO2 from the Mars atmosphere,” the proposal stated.

“Hybrid lighting takes advantage of natural sunlight during warmer periods, and supplemental LEDs during extreme cold, low light, or indoor operation,” the document added. “Recirculating hydroponics and humidity recycling minimize water loss.  The structure also supports a variety of hydroponic nutrient delivery methods, depending on crop needs.”

The technologies developed in the program can be used on Earth for energy savings in vertical farming, year-round roof gardens, and greenhouse CO2 enrichment.

  PROPOSAL SUMMARIES

A Robust Biofilm-Biomat Reactor for Conversion of Mission-Relevant Feedstocks to Products
Subtopic: Advanced Bioreactor Development for In Situ Microbial Manufacturing

Sustainable Bioproducts, LLC
Bozeman MT

Montana State University
Bozeman MT

Principal Investigator: Rich Macur

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 6

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

Sustainable Bioproducts (SBP) has developed a simple and energy efficient bioreactor technology for the purpose of supporting NASA’s in-situ microbial manufacturing needs. The technology capitalizes on the robust nature of filamentous fungi grown as biofilms. SBP has shown that the system can be used to convert a multitude of mission available feedstocks into dense, easily harvestable biomats.

Advantages over current fermentation technologies include: simplicity of operation, minimal to no energy usage during growth, not expected to be significantly impacted by microgravity, dense biomats (~200 g/L), simple harvesting and easy scale-up. Implementation of SBP’s specialized technology will enable the closure of life support loops, particularly waste streams, while providing mission critical products such as nutritional and appetizing foods, fuels, pharmaceuticals and building materials.

Sustainable Bioproducts in collaboration with Montana State University and BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, desire to continue development of the biofilm-biomat reactor system by leveraging learnings from the NASA Phase I program in combination with BioServe’s extensive experience in designing, fabricating and implementing biosystems in space.

SBP, MSU and BioServe propose to design, fabricate and test terrestrial prototype bioreactor systems that incorporate the advanced technology into a single unit. Deliverables for the project include: demonstration level prototype bioreactor that can be incorporated into an ISS midlevel size locker, evaluation of different organisms and feedstocks

in the system, mass balances and transfer rates of individual constituents, examination of biofilm ultrastructure and gene expression, defined operation protocols, and calculation of Critical System Mass in preparation for possible Phase III research.

Potential NASA Applications

Closing life-support loops for NASA space missions and minimizing Equivalent System Mass by providing:

  • Robust low maintenance bioreactors that do not require active aeration or agitation for rapid growth of filamentous microorganisms under microgravity,
  • A biofilm-based reactor technology that enables growth on a wide variety of available feedstocks while providing dense, consolidated and easily harvested biomass,
  • An efficient production system that generates minimal waste residues, and
  • A bioreactor system that easily scales.

Potential Non-NASA Applications 

In addition to increasing SBP’s efficiency for producing high-protein foods, the technology can be used in situations where protein-rich food is needed, such as civilian needs in developing nations, during catastrophes such as earthquakes and floods, and food for military operations. It is expected that governmental agencies such as the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture], FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and DOD [Department of Defense] will be interested in the technology.

Tailoring the Solar Spectrum for Enhanced Crop Yield for Space Missions
Subtopic: Space Exploration Plant Growth

UbiQD
Los Alamos NM

University of Arizona
Tucson AZ

Principal Investigator: Matthew Bergren

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 4
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

UbiQD, Inc, has partnered with the University of Arizona, Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, to enhance the lighting component of the Mars-Lunar Greenhouse prototype to improve the food production of the system.

Ultimately, the goals are for UbiQD to install a down-conversion film composed of quantum dots (QDs) into a solar collecting/fiber optic system to not only provide higher quality PAR spectrum than currently using, but by converting the high concentration of UV photons to visible photons, UbiQD would be able to dramatically increase the intensity of the PAR spectrum and provided to the plants and the quality of the spectrum will also enhance the efficiency of crop growth.

In this Phase II project, we will build on the successful phase I results and develop new light recipes for the QD-films to find the optimal spectra for lettuce and tomatoes, with a final goal to enhance biomass production for controlled environment growing on space missions.

The optimal spectrum will be developed by testing different QD light recipes in a custom-built plant growth test stand to quantify biomass production enhancement for lettuce and tomatoes. From the small-scale plant studies, the two leading light recipes for the QD-films will be used in commercial greenhouse studies on lettuce and tomatoes and crop yield improvements will be quantified. 

The optimal light recipes will also be incorporated into novel fiber-coupled luminescent concentrators (FC-LCs) that can convert sunlight delivered to the MLGH by a solar collector and fiber optic system, to an ideal spectrum for the plants grown in the greenhouse. A portion of the light that is converted by the QDs will be coupled to a second set of fiber optics that can provide inter-canopy lighting to the crops grown.

A larger FC-LC prototype will also be developed to be deployed on the surface of the moon or mars and convert and deliver modified sunlight to the greenhouse with fiber optics.

Potential NASA Applications

  • Spectral modification for enhanced plant production for long space missions and planetary exploration (this project)
  • Remote phosphor and light guiding device for customized plant growth spectra using electrically powered, artificial light
  • Remote phosphor and light guiding device for customized spectra for solid state lighting in space vehicles, space stations and living quarters
  • Renewable electricity production from transparent surfaces, such as windows 

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Fixed position solar spectrum modifying Ag Films for enhanced crop production in greenhouses
  • Deployable solar spectrum-modifying Ag Film for inducing early flowering or fruiting of the plant
  • A fiber coupled luminescent solar concentrator for harvesting and delivering spectrum-modified sunlight to indoor farms
  • Renewable electricity generation from the transparent surfaces of a greenhouse structure

MarsOasis – An Efficient Autonomously Controlled Martian Crop Production System
Subtopic: Space Exploration Plant Growth

Space Lab Technologies, LLC
Boulder CO

Regents of the University of Colorado
Boulder CO

Principal Investigator: Christine Escobar

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

The MarsOasis™ cultivation system is a versatile, autonomous, environmentally controlled growth chamber for food provision on the Martian surface.  MarsOasis™ integrates a wealth of prior research and Mars growth chamber concepts into a complete system design and operational prototype. 

MarsOasis™ includes several innovative features relative to the state of the art space growth chambers.  It can operate on the Mars surface or inside of a habitat.  The growth volume maximizes available growth area and supports a variety of crop sizes, from seeding through harvest.  It utilizes in-situ CO2 from the Mars atmosphere. 

Hybrid lighting takes advantage of natural sunlight during warmer periods, and supplemental LEDs during extreme cold, low light, or indoor operation.  Recirculating hydroponics and humidity recycling minimize water loss.  The structure also supports a variety of hydroponic nutrient delivery methods, depending on crop needs. 

The growth chamber uses solar power when outside, with deployable solar panels that stow during dust storms or at night.  It can also use power from the habitat or other external sources.  The growth chamber is mobile, so that the crew can easily relocate it. 

Autonomous environmental control manages crop conditions reducing crew time for operation. Finally, remote teleoperation allows pre-deployment, prior to crew arrival.   

This project directly addresses the NASA STTR technology area T7.02 “Space Exploration Plant Growth” and will be a major step towards closed-loop, sustainable living systems for space exploration. 

This collaborative effort between Space Lab Technologies, LLC and the Bioastronautics research group from the CU Smead Aerospace Engineering Sciences Department will culminate in the development of a pilot-scale engineering demonstration unit (EDU) for key components. 

Finally, thermal analysis, PAR distribution models, and ESM estimates for the MarsOasis™ concept will be refined, based on EDU testing results. 

Potential NASA Applications

  • MarsOasis™ provides fresh food to spacecraft crew on the Martian surface. 
  • The membrane contactor design allows highly selective CO2 capture and regenerable CO2 control in growth chambers, space habitats, or even spacesuits.  
  • Selective capture of O2 from plant chamber for delivery to crewed habitat.
  • Intelligent hybrid lighting allows mass & volume efficiency for a planetary surface greenhouse.
  • Deployable dome material may be used in planetary surface greenhouses, non-load bearing habitat structures, or even a crew solarium.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • The intelligent hybrid lighting offers significant energy cost savings for vertical farming in greenhouses.
  • A simplified version of MarsOasis™ may be attractive as a year-round roof-top garden.
  • Finally, the membrane contactor design can be used for greenhouse CO2 enrichment