Could food grown in greenhouses in space save us here on Earth?
The company revealed in 2020 that commercial space resources company Nanoracks aims to use orbital greenhouses to grow super-resilient crops that will survive in the harshest conditions on Earth and help avoid the looming food shortage arising from climate change.
The firm, headquartered in Houston, Texas, has signed a contract with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) to open a research center for space farming in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to research resilient crops, fly them into space, and then assess the ability of crops to grow on our planet under arid conditions.
According to Jeffrey Manber, CEO, and co-founder of Nanoracks, this study builds on decades of research that demonstrates that new mutations in plant DNA can arise in the harsh space climate, which could then lead to the development of new varieties capable of surviving on Earth even under difficult conditions.
"There have been many published papers over the years showing specific instances where, in the harsh environment [of space], some interesting biomass products emerge that can do quite well even in desert conditions," Manber told Space.com.
"These plants evolve in space either through changes on the genetic level or through the effects of radiation, the absence of gravity or a combination of all these factors."
Since the 1990s, China has developed and accepted more than 200 space-mutated crop varieties for agricultural use, according to Professor Liu Luxiang of the Institute of Crop Science of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in China. In reality, through space breeding, the second most common wheat variety currently grown in China, Luyuan 502, was created.
"Through flying seeds and other plant material in space on recoverable satellites, manned space missions, and high altitude platforms, we have developed varieties of various crops including vegetables, wheat, maize, and soybean," Liu told Space.com.
China, Liu said, is investing in different plant breeding technology to ensure that its nearly 1.4 billion people will be able to eat in the midst of progressive climate change.
The UAE, which reportedly imports 90 percent of the nation's produce, according to Manber, is looking at space for similar reasons. According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation statistics from 2016, only about 5 percent of the UAE is actually planted, with 80 percent of the world made up of deserts and an overall scarcity of freshwater resources.
The goal of the StarLab Space Farming Centre, which ADIO will build with Nanoracks, is to research and grow new varieties of bacteria, microbes, biofilms, and plants that will subsequently be sent to space either by the International Space Station or as part of other partnerships expected by Nanoracks.
"We hope that at the end of 2021, we will be able to send our first research from StarLab to the ISS," Manber said. "We might set up a small greenhouse in our Bishop airlock and use it as a testbed and then maybe go into a stand-alone orbiting autonomous platform greenhouse in the next five years."
Manber said that while people around the world are looking at possibilities for astronauts on the Moon and Mars to produce food in space, the research project StarLab is very interesting because it seeks to use space for the benefit of everyone on Earth.
"Covid and the climate change really opened our eyes to the fragility of food security in both the developing and the developed world, "Covid and climate change really opened eyes to the fragility of both the developing and the developed world's food security. "We believe that there is a research pathway, where space could be one of the contributing solutions to how we can overcome climate change and the increasing hazards of the Earth climate."
Source - SPACE.COM