March 4, 2024

Tthree robots grow vegetables on the roof of the University of Melbourne’s student pavilion. As I watch, a mechanical arm, hovering above the crop like a fairground claw machine, sprays a carefully measured dose of water over the plants.

The vegetables themselves look rather earthy – because lettuce, basil, cilantro and moth-eaten kale – but they’re actually prototypes for a ground-breaking research mission to grow fresh food in outer space.

The project leader, Prof Sigfredo Fuentes, leans over and picks a tiny caterpillar from a kale leaf. “We had a real plague of cabbage moths last week, but that’s okay; the kale is just here to distract them from the other vegetables.”

Prof Fuentes is part of the wonderfully named Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Plants for Space – a seven-year collaboration between five Australian universities – which worked with 38 organisations, including Nasa, to crack the code of fresh, nutritious “space food”. This is food that has not been thermostabilized (where heat is used to destroy harmful organisms), irradiated or served in freeze-dried packages. “You’ve seen The Matrix, yes?” Fuentes says. “The porridge they eat on the ship? That’s kind of what we’re dealing with up there.”

Specially designed robots tend to grow vegetables for the ‘plants in space’ project. Photo: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Space porridge may be OK for short trips, but with Nasa planning to send manned missions to the moon and Mars in the next few decades, it’s up to scientists to find a better solution. In other words, growing food in space. Potentially indefinite.

“You have to think in terms of time and weight. Mars is a three-year round trip. Each astronaut is allocated about 850 kg on the spacecraft, and that includes all food, equipment, everything!” Fuentes says. “We need to find a way to make food not only healthier and tastier, but also recyclable, more sustainable.”

Problems also arise when people have to eat the same thing, even a small rotation of similar things, over and over again. Studies show that diversity of food is very important for astronauts. Menu fatigue, especially when you are living in a metal box floating in existential darknesscan lead to loss of appetite, shrinking body mass, nutritional deficiencies and other problems.

To solve this mystery, the University of Melbourne team – using Dr. Claudia Gonzalez Viejo and dr. Nir Lipovetzky includes – open source robotic farming machines called farmbots, and a combination of digital sensors, AI and facial analysis, to measure how food grows in certain conditions, and how microgravity affects our experience of eating it.

Guardian Australia reporter James Shackell tries out the project’s zero-gravity chair, which simulates microgravity positions. Photo: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Each farm bot can be programmed to plant seeds, then irrigate them efficiently, harvest crops, spray for disease and even record things like temperature and growth rate. Lipovetzky wanders over and hands me a delicate circuit board that looks very expensive. I try not to drop it. “This is our e-nose,” he says. “It can ‘smell’ different aroma profiles given off by the plants. Combined with the soil sensors on the farm bots, this allows us to see exactly what each plant needs at any given time.”

“The idea is to make everything automatic for long-term missions,” adds Fuentes. “Imagine a smart fridge in space, where everything is grown and extracted from plants, even things like antibiotics, painkillers and plastics. [The e-nose] can sense when supplies are running low, then the food and materials start growing automatically. The astronauts don’t need to be agricultural experts – everything is covered with AI.”

The team is even looking at 3D-printed food made from organic materials, as well as micro-encapsulation. “Like Willy Wonka’s three-course-meal-in-a-candy, you know?” Fuentes laughs. “We can now release different flavors using microencapsulation, and each aroma or taste will hit your tongue at a different time.”

Cutting edge digital technology and AI are used to create innovative food solutions. Photo: Penny Stephens/The Guardian
Astronauts don’t need to be agriculturists to produce fresh salad greens – space farming will be done by AI. Photo: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

Wonka-style pill meals are still being researched, although Nasa was aware of the benefits of microencapsulation for some time. It is hard to say when this technology will go into orbit.

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Our next stop is one of the university’s ‘immersion rooms’: a semi-circular room with a curved wall that stretches 180 degrees, onto which the team projects a rotating close-up of the Earth from low orbit. In the middle of the room, bathed in atmospheric blue light, is what I came here to try: the so-called ‘zero-gravity chair’, which is used to simulate microgravity positions. It turns out to be less high-tech than I expected – “recliner” might be a more accurate description.

“Believe it or not, this is the best way to simulate the effects of microgravity while on Earth,” says Fuentes. ‘And it only costs, like, $100. Very good for siestas.”

The chair tilts me back 170 degrees, just past the point of balance, and I can feel the fluid in my inner ear going to “blip”. All I can see is the curvature of the Earth, slowly turning black. Then a touchscreen tablet is slid in front of my face. This is the second half of the ARC Center’s research efforts. To measure the sensory effect of food in space, you need to get people to eat food in space-like conditions. Today I’m trying Fuentes’ pet project: space beer.

A camera on the tablet measures my blood pressure, heart rate and facial expressions as I drink Heineken upside down from a child’s sippy cup (the team’s first batch of homemade beer is still brewing, so we’re using a commercial stand-in for today’s experiment). The whole thing is managed by a biosensor app. I record my experience on the tablet and choose from a list of emojis that seem to represent everything from mild satisfaction to absurd terror.

Researchers hope to test how astronauts will react to food grown this way. Photo: Penny Stephens/The Guardian

The team will use this data to help build algorithmic models – so-called dan original twin – which can predict how people will react to certain plant-based foods in space. Not just how they taste, but the feelings and emotions they generate in the people who eat them. Hopefully this data will feed into Nasa’s Artemis program for long-term missions to the moon and Mars.

It’s hard to say exactly when we’ll see the fruits, so to speak, of the team’s labor in space – interstellar agronomy is not something you want to rush – but the project has seven years to collect its findings and test the performance of various plants. This should synchronize nicely with Nasa’s timetable – the US government agency wants to send manned missions to Mars as early as next decade.

Fuentes says it’s not just about nutrition. “One of the plants we work with is strawberries. Their aroma can generate an emotional response, which is very important for astronauts… In the dark, strawberries smell like home.”

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