A team of researchers in agricultural technologies and controlled environment at the University of Guelph near Toronto is racing against time to perfect technologies to grow plants on the Moon as well as better quality marijuana.
The plants for the Moon need to be ready when NASA and the European Space Agency are scheduled to launch probes by the end of next year.
The university’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility and its Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture program are an integral part of Canada’s contributions to plant research and development for space and closed environment-related activities.
Their research endeavors in advanced plant-based life support, vertical cultivation and whole plant research are included in the Canadian Space Agency’s Long-Term Space Plan and NASA’s Advanced Life Support program, on top of an ongoing contract with the European Space Agency for its Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative to develop a regenerative life support system for long-term manned missions.
The facility is comprised of 24 sealed environment chambers and homogenizers as well as 14 variable pressure plant growth hypobaric chambers capable of sustaining a vacuum.
Mike Dixon, Director and Chair of the facility.
The key is to measure plant growth, gas exchange, volatile organic compound evolution and nutrient remediation in a precisely controlled environment that mimics space, so as to develop and trial solutions tailor-made for a future self-sustainable life support and a mini-ecosystem that can even produce part of the food for astronauts on the Moon or when they are en route to Mars.
Dixon said space agriculture was a hybrid study incorporating controlled environment technologies as well as the fields of whole plant research, including plant physiology, environment analysis and sensor technology.
One of the outcomes of their applied research was producing high-value allium species – onion and its relatives like garlic, leeks and chives – in soilless culture, a first step in selecting native allium species for a manned space program.
But how to grow more plants and diversify flavors in the usually small space available in spacecraft or on a space station? The answer is the glinting glow emitted from LED lamps.
Plants like lettuce develop different colors and tastes under changing lighting conditions, as greens grown this way are affected by different energy density, wave lengths and spectrum.
Dixon says astronauts at a future lunar station or in a space shuttle bound for Mars may have more choices of their salad sides from their mini space farm.
The lab also has ongoing cooperation with an industrial leader – one of the first companies in Canada to have obtained a cannabis production license under the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations – in beefing up production of the psychoactive plant.
Since Canada’s groundbreaking legalization of cannabis in October, major planters are still struggling to cash in the market bonanza due to production woes. One obstacle is typical when producing large quantities of cannabis in less-controlled, large rooms or greenhouse-type structures.
Research by Dixon’s team is focused on controlled environment production of medical marijuana, with proprietary plant-growing technology using chambers to monitor and regulate all variables throughout the growth, including nutrient demands.
The research involves attaching sensors to the plants to see how they respond to different types of management strategies.
This approach and the systems in place allow his team to produce organically grown and pesticide-free, high-yielding strains of cannabis, which, in turn, can generate high-quality products that are consistent from batch to batch.
“We have pursued a unique approach to controlled environment production of cannabis designed to standardize the production and quality of medical compounds,” says Dixon.