Australia is becoming a world leader in growing plants in space, and re-imagining plant design with sustainability in mind. There is highly innovative research taking place at bioresources facilities, such as University of Adelaide’s “Plants for Space” and Lunaria One’s labs in Victoria. 

These projects will run experiments and gather data, using collective intelligence to develop transformative forms of plants. The idea is to address sustainability challenges on Earth and in space. 

 

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The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space (P4S) is administered by the University of Adelaide. P4S has a wide list of participating organisations globally, including the Australian Space Agency. The network involves 13 academic institutions, 5 international space agencies and enablers, 3 controlled environmental agriculture companies, 5 education providers and 7 government and technology partners.

P4S says their 7-year mission is to “enable humans to survive and thrive in space, through developing new plant forms, products, and uses; and leading a global community that transforms plant performance and sustainability, on and off-Earth”.

 

Plants for space missions 

Plant-based space food can potentially enable humans to live sustainably off-Earth, and possibly one day on Mars. This reduces dependency on resupply of food and medicine from Earth.

The P4S team is maintaining regular liaison with NASA to make sure their research stays relevant to future missions, such as Artemis

P4S are part of the LEAF-B (Lunar Effects on Agricultural Flora) team, developing one of three lunar instruments for NASA’s Artemis III mission. Artemis III will see humans return to the Moon for the first time since the 1970s. LEAF will investigate the lunar surface environment’s effects on space crops, including plant photosynthesis, growth and systemic stress responses in space-radiation and partial gravity.  

Head of the Australian Space Agency Enrico Palermo said the selection of P4S in Artemis III is a major vote of confidence in Australia’s space sector.

“This is another example of the cutting-edge space research and innovation happening in Australia, and the demand there is for us to contribute to generation-defining international missions,” Mr Palermo said. 

A group of people touring a laboratory

Caption: Professor Matthew Gilliham, Director of the ARC CoE in Plants for Space leading a tour of the P4S and EXTERRES lab at University of Adelaide, with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and NASA Deputy Administrator Pamela Melroy in 2023.

“When we are talking about extended human space exploration, you need to be able to produce most of what you need on site, especially if we are looking at a 3 year round trip to Mars for example,” Engagement and Communications Officer for the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space Dr Lieke van der Hulst explains. 

“For humans to survive and thrive in space we will need access to things like food and medication, and plants can produce all of these, so living systems need to be added to the diverse range of space technology and engineering we already have… humans need plants!”

“Other opportunities can play into it, and what we will see in space is increasingly more and more a reflection of our society on Earth,” she says. 

Plant research engaging many fields of expertise

The research in growing space plants engages space technologists, biologists and all kinds of experts in STEM. Plants are an important source of food on-Earth or off-Earth, and their production involves nutritionists and psychologists to ensure a balanced diet for astronauts.

Food is experienced and consumed differently in space, and that includes overall sensory elements: flavour, aroma and texture. The psychology of eating in space studies the attractiveness of food and how to address menu fatigue.

Artist's imp of a Mars living environment. Image Bruce Moffett - University of Adelaide
Caption: Artist's impression of a Mars living environment. Image Bruce Moffett - University of Adelaide.

Additionally, plants can be utilised for plastics and pharmaceuticals. This requires processing and experts who can “scale it up”, according to P4S Chief Operating Officer Dr Richard Harvey.

“It’s about bringing together different partners to solve a problem, whether the intent is for space or Earth,” Dr Harvey says.

“For example, we are working with companies such as Axiom and UK-based vertical farming company Vertical Future and universities such as the University of Western Australia and University of Cambridge, and new collaborators University of Southern Queensland, to design and build autonomous plant growth systems for space and Earth.”

“We have chemical engineers, looking at the microstructure of food, and we’re looking at growing crops such as strawberries and tomatoes in space, which can be easily picked and eaten.”

“Plants can be genetically engineered for desired outcomes.”

Addressing sustainability on Earth… with duckweed

“Space is the ultimate closed loop system and there are real benefits for sustainability in space and on Earth – it’s a good model to start examining those problems of waste,” Dr Harvey says. 

An example of a plant P4S have been focusing on that addresses sustainability challenges is duckweed, which is the fastest growing edible plant on the planet.

“Duckweed causes no waste, you can eat the entire plant, it has a balanced nutritional profile and its full of protein.”

“Duckweed doubles in size every two days and has excellent nutritional value – however you can also use it to produce other products like medicines and plastics, which can translate into many benefits for Earth – if you can grow things in the harshness of space, you can grow things just about anywhere,” he says. 

Growing plants on the Moon

Melbourne-based company Lunaria One is another group aiming to grow plants in space, and in the first instance, on the Moon. The company received $3.6 million funding from the Australian Space Agency via a Moon to Mars Initiative Demonstrator Mission Grant. 

From 2022 to 2026, Lunaria One are running the Australian Lunar Experiment Promoting Horticulture (ALEPH). The ALEPH experiments will test the ability of plants to grow in this harsh environment. 

An experiment to test growing plants in space
Caption: An early example test of an ALEPH-1 experiment using a 3D printed version of Lunaria One's chamber. Credit: Lunaria One

“The goal for our initial experiment (ALEPH-1) is primarily to test the survival and early growth of a range of plant species,” Lauren Fell, Director Lunaria One explains.

“We are selecting seeds and plants that are able to show rapid germination and survival of long dormancy periods and multiple hot/cold cycles likely to be present on the journey to the lunar surface.”

“Along with seeds, we are investigating the inclusion of a set of species called ‘resurrection plants’ – these are fascinating varieties that are able to lose most of their water and subsequently ‘resurrect’ when water is reintroduced.”

“This makes them an ideal candidate for our experiment, and we also happen to have a fantastic example native to Australia,” she says.

Lunaria One has partnered with vertical farming and benchtop gardening small businesses InvertiGro and Micropod Australia. She says this will “bring our experiment into homes and schools, and encourage further engagement with growing and eating fresh greens”. They are also partnered with One Giant Leap Foundation and Stile Education to bring opportunities to school aged children. 

“We want to grow plants on the Moon, but, more importantly, aim to bring the Australian public with us on this exciting journey.”  

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