While we’re not likely to see crops of any sort sprouting from the moon’s surface any time soon, researchers have built a prototype lunar greenhouse that could allow plants from Earth to be grown without soil on the moon or Mars.
The membrane-covered module can be collapsed to a 4-foot (1.2m) wide disk for interplanetary travel and contains water-cooled sodium vapor lamps and long envelopes that would be loaded with seeds, ready to sprout hydroponically.
The prototype lunar greenhouse built by researchers at the University of ArizonaControlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) represents the last 18 feet (5.5m) of one of several tubular structures that would be part of a proposed lunar base. The tubes would be buried beneath the moon’s surface to protect the plants and green thumbed astronauts from solar flares, micrometeorites and cosmic rays.
“We can deploy the module and have the water flowing to the lamps in just ten minutes,” said Phil Sadler, president of Sadler Machine Co., which designed and built the lunar greenhouse. “About 30 days later, you have vegetables.”
Components for the system, including sensors that gather data, algorithms to analyze that data and a control system to optimize performance, are being designed by assistant professor Roberto Furfaro of systems and industrial engineering, and associate professor Murat Kacira of agricultural and biosystems engineering.
“We want the system to operate itself,” Kacira said. “However, we’re also trying to devise a remote decision-support system that would allow an operator on Earth to intervene. The system can build its own analysis and predictions, but we want to have access to the data and the control system.”
Carbon dioxide is fed into the prototype greenhouse from pressurized tanks, but astronauts would provide CO2 at the lunar base just by breathing. Similarly, water for the plants would be extracted from astronaut urine, and the water-cooled electric lights might be replaced by fiber optic cable – essentially light pipes – which would channel sunlight from the surface to the plants underground.
The lunar greenhouse contains approximately 220 pounds (100kg) of wet plant material that can provide 53 quarts (50 liters) of potable water and about three-quarters of a pound (340g) of oxygen during a 24-hour period, while consuming about 100 kilowatts of electricity and a pound of carbon dioxide.