The exploration of human space depends on the nailing of a rustic practice
Whether to spend money for outer space exploration or applying it to solve serious problems on Earth, like climate change and food shortages, is a contentious debate. But a case for space exploration points to benefits that actually help to study, monitor and solve serious problems like climate change and food production.
As access to space increases, the potential for terrestrial benefits directly related to space exploration grows exponentially.
Agriculture for the Earth
Agriculture has improved dramatically through the application of space-based advances to terrestrial challenges. It is now increasingly likely that foodstuffs have been produced using space-based technologies, such as freeze-dried foods, or through the use of crop monitoring from space observatories.
Satellite monitoring is arguably the most realized benefit of space for agriculture. Like watchful eyes in the sky, satellites watch farmland around the world day and night. Specialized sensors installed on relevant satellites (eg NASA’s Landsat, European Space Agency’s Envisat and Canadian Space Agency’s RADARSAT) monitor various parameters relevant to agriculture.
Sensors monitoring soil moisture can tell us when and how quickly soils are drying, helping to direct more efficient irrigation on a regional scale. Weather satellites help predict droughts, floods, rainfall patterns and plant disease outbreaks.
Satellite data helps us predict threats of food insecurity or crop failure.
Grow your own in space
It’s not just lifeless machines that live in space. Humans have managed to survive and grow plants in low Earth orbit aboard several spacecraft and stations. Space is the ultimate “harsh environment” for life, including plants, due to new stressors such as cosmic radiation and the absence of gravity.
Space biologist Anna-Lisa Paul describes plants as being able to “access their genetic toolbox and remake the tools they need” to adapt to the new space environment. The new tools and behaviors expressed by plants under spaceflight conditions could be used to solve the challenges facing crops in Earth’s changing climate.
NASA researchers sent cotton seeds to the International Space Station to understand how cotton roots grow without gravity. The research results will help develop cotton varieties with a deeper root system to access and absorb soil water more efficiently in drought-prone areas.
Soon humans will be going to the Moon and eventually Mars. During their stay, the astronauts will have to grow their own food.
Space agencies have been working on specialized systems that provide the necessary conditions for growing plants in space. These systems are containers that can control the internal environment and grow plants without soil under LED lights. NASA’s research into controlled-environment systems for growing plants was fundamental in the development of the modern vertical agricultural sector – indoor farms that grow crops in soilless piles under the purple haze of LEDs.
Now a booming industry, vertical farms produce huge volumes of fresh, healthy leafy crops with a fraction of the water and nutrients that would be used in terrestrial farming systems. Vertical farms can be set up in cities where the demand is, reducing the need for long-distance transportation.
Because crops are grown indoors in controlled environments, vertical farms can significantly reduce reliance on herbicides and pesticides while recycling water and preventing nutrient runoff.
Given space constraints, agricultural production techniques must be more energy efficient and require minimal human input. Crops must also be nutrient rich, with the ability to withstand high stress environments. These characteristics are also desirable for crops on Earth.
Scientists are developing a more resource-efficient potato crop where the whole plant can be eaten, including roots, shoots and fruit. These crops will play a central role in food and nutrition security on Earth and in space.
Space exploration has been a major driver of technological advances. The renewed interest in space can only benefit agriculture here on Earth by providing new opportunities for improving agriculture. Literally out-of-this-world innovations can provide us with tools to fight food production in the face of the looming threats posed by global climate change.
This article was originally published on The conversation by Ajwal Dsouza and Thomas Graham at the University of Guelph. Read the original article here.