Testing Super Foods for Space and More on Blue Origin Suborbital Flight

NASA will be testing super foods for space and more on Blue Origin Suborbital Flight and agency’s television and the website will air the company’s webcast, scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 24.

It’s no surprise to most of us that regularly eating fresh produce is a great way to support a healthy diet. Fresh fruits and vegetables benefit astronauts on the International Space Station, too – and soon the Moon and beyond. Scientists are investigating sustainable ways to grow highly nutritious foods in microgravity, to give space explorers a readily available supply of daily greens.

On an upcoming flight facilitated by the Flight Opportunities program, part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, Space Lab Technologies will test their microgravity LilyPond, a hydroponic chamber for growing edible aquatic plants in space. Along with several other technologies selected for testing, LilyPond will launch on Blue Origin’s next New Shepard mission. The payloads will fly to space and experience several minutes of microgravity before returning to Earth, giving researchers valuable data about how their technologies perform.

Blue Origin is targeting Thursday, Sept. 24, at 11:00 a.m. EDT for the New Shepard launch. NASA Television and the agency’s website will air the company’s webcast, scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m.

“In space, we need crops that produce a lot of nutritious material with minimal resources and volume – and those that can grow very fast, tolerate environmental extremes, and of course taste good are even better,” said Christine Escobar, vice president of Space Lab and principal investigator for the microgravity LilyPond.

The microgravity LilyPond growth chamber uses capillary action to provide a stable water surface on which duckweed (and potentially other veggies, like microgreens) can grow. LED panels provide an efficient light source, and a salad spinner-like sieve helps separate the water from the plants when ready to harvest.
Credits: Space Lab Technologies

Looking at these parameters, Space Lab zeroed in on duckweed (also known as water lentils) – as their test crop. With its high protein content (up to 45%) and a rich supply of antioxidants, amino acids, and Omega-3s, the crunchy vegetable is sometimes called a superfood. Escobar said these rapidly growing plants are ideal for space because they do not require soil or another growing media – which means fewer materials, less mass, and less waste for resource-intensive space missions. But realizing the promise of such plants requires the right technology.

“The two biggest issues with growing a floating aquatic plant in space are providing a stable water surface that is open to the air, and harvesting the plant,” explained Escobar.

In the absence of gravity, getting water to stay where you put it can be a challenge. To address this issue, Space Lab began developing the microgravity LilyPond in collaboration with the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2017 with funding from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) program. Closely stacked shallow growth trays provide a stable water surface on which the plant grows, with water delivered via open capillary channels and LED panels providing an efficient light source. When the plants are ready to eat, a rotary sieve separates them from the water, which can be recycled for the next crop.

“The more we explore, the more we discover that it pays to reuse, recycle, and regenerate consumable resources on board a spacecraft, rather than carrying them all with you and then throwing away the waste,” said Escobar.

Following the upcoming test flight, Space Lab will use video data to verify the performance of their growth chamber, and make any necessary design changes prior to proposing the technology for an orbital test on the space station.

“Suborbital flights facilitated by Flight Opportunities give us the ability to advance our technology at a much lower cost before we move on to that next step,” said Escobar.



Categories: Development

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