Researchers at the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, known as CEAC, are demonstrating that plants from Earth could be grown hydroponically (without soil) on the moon or Mars, setting the table for astronauts who would find potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables awaiting their arrival.
The research team has built a prototype lunar greenhouse in the CEAC Extreme Climate Lab at UA's Campus Agricultural Center. It represents the last 18 feet of one of several tubular structures that would be part of a proposed lunar base. The tubes would be buried beneath the moon's surface to protect the plants and astronauts from deadly solar flares, micrometeorites and cosmic rays.
The membrane-covered module can be collapsed to a 4-foot-wide disk for interplanetary travel. It contains water-cooled sodium vapor lamps and long envelopes that would be loaded with seeds, ready to sprout hydroponically. Standing beside the growth chamber, which was overflowing with greenery despite the windowless CEAC lab, principal investigator and CEAC Director Gene Giacomelli said, "You can think of this as a robotic mechanism that is providing food, oxygen and fresh drinking water."
"We want the system to operate itself," Kacira said. "However, we're also trying to devise a remote decision-support system that would allow an operator on Earth to intervene. The system can build its own analysis and predictions, but we want to have access to the data and the control system."
Efficient use of resources is just as important for hydroponic greenhouses anywhere on the globe, Giacomelli emphasized. "All that we learn from the life support system in the prototype lunar greenhouse can be applied right here on Earth," he added.
"On another planet, you need to minimize your labor, recycle all you can and operate as efficiently as possible," he said. "If I ask the manager of a hydroponic greenhouse in Willcox [Ariz.] what's most important, he or she will tell me those same things – recycle, minimize labor, minimize resource use."
Carbon dioxide is fed into the prototype greenhouse from pressurized tanks, but astronauts would provide CO2 at the lunar base just by breathing. Similarly, water for the plants would be extracted from astronaut urine, and the water-cooled electric lights might be replaced by fiber optic cable – essentially light pipes – which would channel sunlight from the surface to the plants underground.
The lunar greenhouse contains approximately 220 pounds of wet plant material that can provide 53 quarts of potable water and about three-quarters of a pound of oxygen during a 24-hour period, while consuming about 100 kilowatts of electricity and a pound of carbon dioxide
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