International Team Explores Gardening in Space

January 27, 2012

Arizona businessman Phil Sadler and the University of Arizona’s Gene Giacomelli have long believed that hydroponic gardening—the method of growing plants without soil—can solve food problems around the globe.

Now, in partnership with two Italian firms, they get to demonstrate that the method can keep Earthlings alive on other worlds.

The UA’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC), of which Giacomelli is director, has launched the second phase of a project to grow vegetables on the moon. It’s funded by a $250,000, two-year NASA Ralph Steckler Space Grant.

Sadler, president of Sadler Machine Co. in Tempe, serves as consultant on the lunar greenhouse prototype project that’s housed at the UA’s Campus Agriculture Center. He built the prototype module that encases plants in a walk-in tube about the size of a camping van. He’s adding three more modules to the project.

Aero-Sekur, an aerospace company in Aprilia, Italy has designed structures for the plant-growing modules. It will continue refining two components: a membrane that provides airtight, thermal insulation and some radiation shielding, as well as a flexible structure that maximizes artificial light.

Thales Alenia Space-Italia (TAS-I), headquartered in Turin, helped develop the automated monitoring and control system in collaboration with Steckler researcher Murat Kacira. It continues to provide important data and models to improve the greenhouse’s performance.

Growing Plants for Off-World Survival

Hydroponic gardening occurs in an enclosed environment without soil in which air, humidity, water, light and fertilizer are human-controlled.

The lunar greenhouse project demonstrates how we can grow a variety of crops that will provide not only food for a crew, but recycle water and replenish air with oxygen in the crew’s extraterrestrial habitat.

Phase 2 will apply what the team has learned and developed in the initial phase to improve recycling capabilities and increase food production.

As they try different strategies, the team will determine when to schedule plantings and how to manage crops so that food is constantly available and oxygen and water are reliably replenished.

The UA-led international effort expands on NASA’s experiments with full-scale greenhouses. “We are bringing forth a more robust, practical size that NASA needs to consider,” says Giacomelli, who is the principal technical investigator.

Creating Partnerships

Sadler, whose small business manufactures hardware components, and Giacomelli have worked together for 11 years on creating hydroponic gardens in harsh conditions, including one at the South Pole.

The community of scientists, engineers and companies investigating extraterrestrial plant production for human life support, known as the field of agrospace, is small, maybe between 10 and 20 people.

“It’s a very small group of people and not much money for people to do the work,” says Giacomelli.

“Everybody knows everybody and what they’re doing,” he says, which is how he formed the alliance with the two Italian companies.

Business Growth Through Collaboration

While the project focuses on space applications of hydroponics, it provides other, terrestrial benefits for its partners and the general public.

Via the project, the UA provides students the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research. What they learn will be applied to places—on Earth or elsewhere—where soil food production is difficult or impossible.

The effort also opens opportunities to develop new technologies, such as an experimental apparatus for transmitting sunlight to the greenhouse, that can become marketable products.

Sadler, who earned a botany degree from Northern Arizona University, is able to further his studies into hydroponics components. “I have access to engineering,” he says of his company. “Anything I need intellectually is at the UA.”

TAS-I designs life support systems for the International Space Station, for which it is investigating a crop-growth facility. “At the same time,” says Cesare Lobascio, who leads the firm’s research into space infrastructures and transportation, “we study future systems for planetary exploration with very efficient recycling.”

The lunar greenhouse allows TAS-I to “perform the full range of technological developments that we planned in our R&D roadmaps in this field.”

Silvio Rossignoli, president of Aero-Sekur, sees his involvement as a way to continue diversification of his mid-size company.

The work on the lunar greenhouse will improve the company’s other protective enclosures, including inflatable shelters.

“Moreover,” says Rossignoli, “we are fully aware of our role in our region with regards to the growth of greenhouse enhanced productivity systems.”

“Our goal,” he adds, “is to make this space technology more affordable to earth applications. Everyone should have a small hydroponic greenhouse at home.”

Watch real-time activity of the Lunar Greenhouse Research Laboratory