How to feed the planet? The answer comes from space

As a closed hydroponic plant equipped with specific lighting, temperature and humidity control systems, the GreenCube is able to guarantee a complete growth cycle of microgreens (in this case watercress). The crop was carefully selected to withstand extreme conditions and achieve a high yield.

In the cytogenomics laboratory at the research institute Enea Casaccia (Rome), researchers are carrying out a growth test with plants in a CubeSat. In the picture: a researcher shows a base with plants.

“Scientific research is increasingly focused on the development of bioregenerative systems to support life in extreme environments where outdoor cultivation is basically impossible,” explains Luca Nardi (here in the picture), researcher at Enea, the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, the second largest Italian public research body. “Plants play a key role in precision nutrition for astronauts in space. But the solutions designed to provide astronauts with fresh food also find applications in ‘terrestrial’ horticulture that we may need in the future.”

GreenCube is the first indoor gardening experiment. It was launched into orbit last July (and still is) from the Kourou base in French Guiana with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) first VEGA-C launch vehicle, along with the science satellite LARES2 and five other nanosatellites.

The micro garden, measuring 30 x 10 x 10 centimeters, was designed by an all-Italian scientific team. The project is the result of a collaboration agreement between the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and La Sapienza University in Rome. Enea and Federico II University of Naples also participate.

“Small hydroponic cultivation units like the GreenCube can play a key role in meeting the food needs of the herd, minimizing cultivation cycles and avoiding pollution, thanks to the automatic monitoring of environmental conditions. Because the cultivation takes place in a pressurized and limited environment, the GreenCube is also equipped with an integrated system of high-tech sensors for remote monitoring and control of environmental parameters, growth and plant health It transmits all data independently to the base on Earth The cultivation system in orbit offers maximum efficiency both in terms of harvest volume as consumption of energy, air, water and nutrients And during the mission experiments are also planned on Earth in an exact replica of the satellite to verify the effects of radiation, low pressure and microgravity on the plants.”

The GreenCube satellite is cylindrical in shape, measures 10 x 10 x 30 cm and is made of aluminium. Solar panels have been installed along all walls, which are necessary to power the command and control system and sensors during the mission in space.

“The data we receive is of great importance to understand how we can improve intensive horticulture, make it more precise and rationalize the consumption of energy, fertilizer and water. The solution to growing vegetables at home and practically as needed according to one’s growing nutritional needs. are getting closer and soon it will be possible to grow fresh produce based on different parameters such as body weight, height and even an individual’s genetic characteristics,” says Nardi.

“Urban agriculture or domestic agriculture can support the integration of intensive horticulture, as climate change makes outdoor cultivation increasingly difficult. We are also thinking about how it will be possible to cultivate in the most inaccessible areas of the planet (deserts). , high mountains, arctic area ), where atmospheric conditions do not allow horticulture. With some futuristic exceptions, we work a lot in our research with technological innovation that can be used in modern horticulture. It is from experiments like this that solutions are found against food waste and in the horticulture service, which is estimated to should feed a planet inhabited by 10 billion people in the coming years.”

For more information:
Luca Nardic
Enea
Biotechnology laboratory
luca.nardi@enea.it

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