Say you are on Mars and fancy a salad. Unless the Curiosity rover can make an unexpected find of fresh romaine somewhere on the dusty Red Planet, you are looking at a nine-month trip to the nearest produce aisle on Earth. A better option? Grow the salad yourself.
That's exactly the approach NASA is taking as it plans for future manned expeditions to places like the moon or Mars, where food availability will be a significant challenge. Joining this mission is a team of Ohio State University researchers and students who are helping NASA figure out the best way to grow food aboard space exploration units.
The team, from the university's Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, designed and built a food-production system for NASA's Deep Space Habitat -- a space module with living quarters, workspaces and laboratories that is expected to enable human exploration in faraway environments.
"Our system is automated so that the crew doesn't have to spend too much time taking care of the plants," said Peter Ling, an associate professor in FABE and faculty advisor in the project. "The system controls irrigation and monitors plant temperature and health. At the bottom of the unit there is a weight plate that detects water leakage and water loss by plants, and also estimates growth.
"The idea is that this unit will one day be a regenerative life-support system not just for growing food, but also for purifying the air, producing oxygen and cleaning wastewater."