W hen you think of food that astronauts eat, you’re probably not imagining leafy green salads. For those who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, “space food” was synonymous with Tang breakfast drink, which was famously enjoyed on early NASA manned space flights (although the powdered drink was not made for the space program as commonly believed).
Some 50 years later, astronauts are still eating powdered and freeze-dried meals, but lately they’ve been able to consume fresh produce that is nutrient-dense to supplement the vitamins and minerals that the packets lack.
Truth be told, astronauts began growing crops on orbit in the 1970s for research purposes, but the practice of eating what they grew on-site is more recent. After extensive research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) facilities on earth, the first Veggie (Vegetable Production System) module was installed on the International Space Station in 2014, where it is still being used to grow fresh lettuce and other similar, short crops.
Hydroponics (the method of growing plants without soil) has been gaining in popularity on a global scale. There are organizations interested in harnessing the technique with the goal of ending world hunger; farmers experiencing record droughts who are examining alternative growing methods to save their revenue stream; restaurants cultivating their own farm-to-table menus; plus consumers interested in produce that has not been tainted by pesticides or contaminants that might cause nationwide e.coli outbreaks.
When it comes to learning about growing edible plants out of thin air, it makes sense to turn to the qualified experts who have been perfecting the process: NASA. With the basics of hydroponics mastered, NASA scientists have continued their research by exploring precisely how specific amounts of light and color affect various plants’ growing cycles, control height and width, and can even modify the taste of the product grown. The rapid development of LED technology has made fine-tuning these “light recipes” easier to accomplish and document.
Matt Mickens, one of the Postdoctoral Research Scientists on fellowship at NASA, turned to LED provider OSRAM for guidance after learning about its prototype horticulture lighting system Phytofy RL. Together, with help from OSRAM’s Innovations America team, Mickens began developing light recipes that could improve the flavor and nutrition of the plants grown in the Advanced Plant Habitat on the International Space Station.
Michigan State University (MSU), which is also involved in the research project, has developed a state-of-the-art Controlled Environment Lighting Laboratory (CELL) for controlling and scheduling light quality and color depending on the crop being grown. The success of that system would ostensibly lead to the production of more flavorful, nutrient-rich crops for vertical farming applications here on earth.
MSU is responsible for developing the light recipes that NASA uses to optimize crops for certain traits such as larger fruit, vibrant colors, and more nutritious leaves. [Fun fact: light recipes with more blue light yield plants with smaller (yet more nutritious) leaves, while more red light is best for growing longer stems and for flowering plants.
For the NASA project, OSRAM developed a customized version of Phytofy RL. The smart lighting software – coupled with a unique set-up of connected grow light fixtures – supplements the lighting technology used in NASA’s Food Production Research. All of Phytofy’s software, hardware, and LEDs were developed by OSRAM to irradiate the specific wavelengths needed for the optimum growth of a wide variety of plants and flowers, allowing the light to be adapted specifically for the needs of various crops.
NASA was introduced to OSRAM through Hort Americas, which works closely with leading manufacturers to provide North American greenhouse growers, vertical farmers, and researchers with the most technically advanced and cost-effective products to help them reach their yield, quality, and project goals. Members of NASA’s food production research team presented Hort Americas with a list of features they wanted from a lighting fixture, and Hort Americas then used its network to help NASA team up with OSRAM to learn more about the Phytofy RL horticulture lighting technology.
At the NASA facility, Mickens has been experimenting with combinations of LED colors and documenting the results for the past three years. “I set up different light regimens and grow the same crop using [several] recipes to see how the plants respond,” he says. Observing changes is meticulous work since the variations can be subtl
For example, by altering the light recipe, when plants are made to a smaller size (i.e. “dwarfed”), it amplifies the amount of nutrients. Through radiation with light of different wavelengths, the growth cycles of plants can be controlled and accelerated, allowing the plants to be harvested more often.
Lately Mickens has been exploring the effects of UV LED, a process that has not been used on the Space Station yet. Mickens explains that UV’s shorter wavelengths “stress” the plants slightly, causing them to protect themselves, thereby bolstering the amount of antioxidants in the plants, which also changes the taste.
The Phytofy system includes a UV channel that gives researchers the ability to add a brief UV light to document how plants react and change. According to OSRAM, Phytofy has more LEDs, which means a higher Photosynthetic Photon Flux (PPF) for measuring light emission by calculating how many photons are coming out of the light every second — an important metric for plant researchers in determining the most efficient and effective light recipes. Phytofy also contains an irradiance map so scientists can see the irradiance using Osram software, without the need to measure irradiance separately before changing the light setting.
“I’m hoping NASA can use the results of my work to [develop] recipes for multiple crops; right now I’m just working with three,” Mickens comments. “The real treasure of working at NASA is that we can apply these findings right here on earth.”
NASA scientists are hopeful that smart horticulture lighting systems, and other lighting-related developments, will lead to a greater leap forward into deep space travel far beyond what has been attempted before. A proposed “Gateway Garden” prototype food production facility for deep space exploration is already on the planning board.
According to NASA, a BioSentinel mission has been selected as “one of the secondary payloads to fly on the Space Launch System’s first Exploration Mission (EM-1) planned for launch in July 2018.” The primary objective of BioSentinel is to develop a biosensor using a simple model organism to detect, measure, and correlate the impact of space radiation to living organisms over long durations beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO). What does this have to do with lighting? The BioSentinel has a “microfluidics card” for studying the impact of interplanetary space radiation on yeast. Once in orbit, the growth and metabolic activity of the yeast will be measured using a 3-color LED detection system and a metabolic indicator dye.
In the meantime, OSRAM’s smart horticulture lighting system is being piloted through a series of collaborations with universities and research labs around the world that are using the technologies and sharing insights. Installation of Phytofy RL within a growth chamber at Kennedy Space Center in Florida was completed recently, with plans to move the configuration to one or more of the Center’s walk-in plant grow rooms.
“OSRAM is developing smart, innovative lighting technologies that can improve food production in a variety of environments, even unique environments like space,” said Steve Graves, Strategic Program Manager of Urban & Digital Farming/Osram Innovation, Americas Region. “Many of the world’s coolest and most beneficial inventions have come from scientists at NASA over the past several decades, and to play a role in empowering further innovation through the use of our technologies is an honor. We are excited about the possibilities Phytofy RL will bring to a wide variety of horticulture applications, and our teams are excited to continue learning and refining its set-up before ultimately bringing this exclusive solution to market within the next year.”