Why Space May Be AgTech’s Next Giant Leap Forward

Why Space May Be AgTech’s Next Giant Leap Forward
May 29, 2023

 By Janeen Wright

At first glance, space and plants don’t seem to have much in common. Space begins at 62 miles above sea level for those of us on Earth and offers no air to breathe or atmosphere to scatter light. Plants, on the other hand, depend on oxygen for survival and require light for photosynthesis. It would seem then that the two aren’t a good match. Yet, technologies explored and developed for sustaining life in space have more to do with advancing plant cultivation here on Earth than we may realize. They are helping to advance agricultural practices to places no man has gone before.

NASA has long been interested in plant-growing technology to support life during long-term space exploration and has carried out plant research in space as early as the 1940s. Several of the research projects compared the effects of microgravity and space’s harsh environmental conditions to environmental conditions on Earth. The results of this research allowed scientists to better understand whether certain plant growth patterns are intrinsic or induced by their environment. Think of the foundation this type of research built for the breeding work done today to develop plants that are more resistant to pests and disease, as well as numerous environmental conditions.

NASA astronauts enjoyed their first space-grown salad in 2015. Crops such as radishes, zinnias, kale, cabbage, and more have all been cultivated in space, many in a vegetable production system the size of a carry-on suitcase. Researchers recently grew dwarf tomatoes in space, as part of the Veg-5 experiment, to assess the impacts of light and fertilizer treatments on crop production and nutritional values. LED technologies, climate controls, and vertical farms all have roots linked back to NASA research projects. Plenty and Bowery Farming are just two vertical farming companies implementing technologies into their operations that expand on NASA’s plant-growth research.

And there is more promising space research on the horizon, especially with the entry of private companies now involved in space exploration. Scientists from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center are currently working on a seed film technology that uses a water-soluble polymer, similar to a breath freshener strip, that they embed with seeds. One strip can carry multiple seeds and allows for easier handling and storage. The initial research results for seed film are promising, and in the future, scientists hope to experiment with adding other components, such as nutrients and plant growth regulators. This technology could eventually pave the way for the addition of components that help plants show more resistance to extreme environmental stressors caused by changing climatic conditions.

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