Farming in space and from space, sounds outta this world, right? Pardon the pun. As crazy as it might seem, the technology exists and lots of money is being spent on research and development in this field.
We already have technology that is able to monitor cows via fitbit-like devices, drones that can be used to fine tune crop yield and vertical farms that make it possible to grow crops without soil. Will space provide the next phase in the future of agriculture?
Farming From Space
Farming has always been hard work, and will no doubt continue to be. It’s a physical industry where a combination of experience, knowledge and hard work determine the successful yield of crops and livestock. The modern farmer however is able to use advanced technology and data to tip the hand in his or her favour.
There has been a massive rise in the use of on-the-ground technologies such as driverless tractors, drones and sensors over the last five to ten years. These technologies reduce the need for manual labour and enable better informed decisions to be made. In more recent years farmers are turning to satellites to improve agriculture management.
Governments and large funding bodies see the use of satellites in agriculture as one potential solution to the world’s future food production issues. In the UK for example, Innovate UK recently held a £3.75 million ‘Satellites to improve agri-food systems’ innovation competition. The aim of the competition was to
stimulate the development and adoption of new technologies and/or business models based on the innovative use of satellite technology, which help to improve the productivity of the UK food and farming industries and simultaneously address the environmental impacts of increased land use and intensification.
The motivation behind the competition is to encourage the use of satellite and space technology ‘to improve resource use efficiency and to increase the productivity of agricultural systems in a sustainable way.’
Daily Earth Images
Not to be left behind large private organisations are also jumping on the farming from space bandwagon.
Planet Labs is currently working on making smaller more cost effective satellites that are launched in bulk to be used to constantly monitor the earth.
The company aims to have enough satellites in orbit in 2016 that they can take images of the entire earth, every day.
With such real time imagery the possibilities are endless – the ability to examine a single crop, or even an entire country, over time and make comparisons in order to correct or prevent issues before they happen. Consider being able to watch deforestation, the effects of a drought or a flood as it happens and be able to take corrective action. Powerful stuff.
Farming In Space
If farming from space isn’t exciting enough for you, how about farming in space? While some may say that this isn’t a viable option, what happens if (god forbid) the earth no longer becomes a sustainable option for farming?
If you listen to the doomsdayers we don’t have long left before this planet heats to a level where living safely here will be impossible.
Around the world, and the solar system, there are governments and private organisations already working on solutions for growing produce in space, space stations and even other planets.
One of the biggest experiments to date has been by Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. In 2013 the research team from the university experimented with growing fourteen different plant species in soil from Mars and the moon supplied by NASA. Then in 2015 the team went even further and successfully grew radishes, peas, tomatoes and rye. The team are currently in the process of crowdfunding for a third round of experiments so they can investigate the safety and nutritional value of food grown with the soil from Mars and the moon.
Space Shuttle Farming
NASA too has done some experimentation in the space farming arena. Their project, the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) is a
deployable plant growth unit capable of producing salad-type crops to provide the crew with a palatable, nutritious, and safe source of fresh food and a tool to support relaxation and recreation. The Veggie provides lighting and nutrient delivery, but utilizes the cabin environment for temperature control and as a source of carbon dioxide to promote growth.
Like many other indoor farms, the Veggie system uses LED lights, and even has sensors that text the astronauts when the crops need watering.
NASA have developed this system in order to provide a sustainable food source for the staff on-board the space station and are looking to harvest other fruits, vegetables and plants in the future.
While all these experiments don’t replicate the atmospheric conditions in space, on Mars or on the moon they demonstrate the efforts that are going into this new field of space farming, and there’s a glimpse of what may be possible in the future.
Whether it’s farming from space, or farming in space, as technology advances and costs decline these types of projects and experiments are bound to continue. Maybe by the time Elon Musk and Richard Branson offer affordable trips into space there will also be a sustainable food source for us to enjoy on our weekend break to Mars.