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Exploring plants as supportsystems for the space missions of tomorrow

Plant behavior, hardware and cultivation conditions are thoroughly tested at Wageningen University as input for the design and manufacture of new cultivation hardware and sensor technology suitable for space missions.

As we set for long-term space missions far from our own planet, we need to be capable of regenerating resources essential to human life. Øyvind Mejdell Jakobsen and Ann-Iren Kittang Jost tell us about the TIME SCALE project’s work in developing technologies and know-how to support the space exploration missions of the future The vast expanse

of space has long fascinated scientists, now plans are emerging to probe deeper into the solar system with a new generation of manned space missions, far away from our own planet. ESA and NASA are aiming for long-term missions to the Moon and Mars, requiring sophisticated systems. “Such missions require life-support systems. The astronauts need water, food, oxygen, and other resources,” points out Øyvind Mejdell Jakobsen. Based at CIRiS, a part of the NTNU Social Research company in the Norwegian city of Trondheim, Jakobsen is the exploitation and dissemination manager of the TIME SCALE project, an EU-backed initiative aiming at next-generation technology and knowledge to support future long-term space missions. “To survive in Space, we can bring resources and use physical and chemical methods to produce what we need. However, as the technology and knowledge evolve, we can use plants as regenerative life-support systems that can re-circulate and regenerate scarce resources,” he outlines.


A key part of this work is based on the European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS), an experimental, greenhouse-like facility on the International Space Station (ISS) which allows scientists to study plant biology under different

Life-support systems The focus in this respect is on the development of biology-based regenerative life-support systems, which utilise biological systems to regenerate resources essential to human life.

As the technology and knowledge evolve, we can use plants as regenerative life-support systems that can

re-circulate and regenerate scarce resources controlled conditions. Experiments with the EMCS over the last ten years have enabled scientists to gain new insights into how plants behave under different gravitational conditions for example, now researchers aim to enhance the system further, opening up new avenues of investigation. “TIME SCALE demonstrates how we can upgrade the EMCS or similar ISS payloads with improved concepts and technologies,” explains Jakobsen. The wider objective in this work is to help develop a closed regenerative life support systems for longer-duration, manned space missions.

A good example is the conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen. “A plant-based regenerative life support system would be able to take the carbon dioxide that humans breathe out and, using plant photosynthesis, convert it into the oxygen that we all require,” outlines Jakobsen. This could support future manned missions, and Jakobsen says it could also be possible to regenerate drinkable water from waste water. “Another example is purification of waste water,” he says. “A plant takes up a lot of water, and then it evaporates

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through a process called transpiration. That humid air could be condensed, over the plant leaves, giving you a source of drinkable water.” These types of systems may theoretically be effective here on Earth, yet gravitational conditions in deep space are of course very different, so further investigation is essential before it can be confidently stated that they would perform effectively in different circumstances on a long-term space mission. Water starts behaving differently in zero gravity, as do plants, so Jakobsen says it’s important to probe deeper into this area. “A lot of fundamental biology experiments need to be done under micro-gravity – basically no gravity at all – or reduced gravity, as can be found on the Moon or on Mars. We need to understand how the plants behave under these types of gravity conditions,” he outlines. There are also a number of other factors to consider. “We need to recycle not only the water, but also certain nutrients. If they can be re-used and recycled under micro-gravity conditions, then that would be a major achievement,” says Ann-Iren Kittang Jost, the coordinator of the project.

The TIME SCALE project will have a major role to play in supporting this kind of research. The aim is to develop knowledge and specific technologies to improve not only the EMCS, but also other payloads on the ISS, which can then be used in continued investigation. “These are important research platforms to help develop and demonstrate the technologies and biological knowledge that we will need for future systems,” says Kittang Jost. The technologies being developed in the project include nutrient sensor technology by CleanGrow Ltd (UK) and a plant health monitoring system developed by the Laboratory of Functional Plant Biology of Ghent University and the company Interscience (Belgium and the Netherlands). Wageningen University, University of Stuttgart and the companies Prototech AS (Norway) and DTM Technologies (Italy) are other partners of this multi-national collaboration, developing water and nutrient management system and improved concepts and hardware for plant cultivation. “These technologies and systems can be added on to different payloads on the

ISS, and they could potentially be applied in future greenhouses on the Moon and Mars,” continues the project coordinator. Towards the end of the TIME SCALE project, life tests with plant cultivation in a so-called breadboard will be performed at CIRiS in Norway to demonstrate operational capability of the new technology.

Terrestrial plant production The TIME SCALE research also holds important implications for plant production on our own planet, such as in the land-based greenhouse industry. Many plants today are grown using hydroponic systems, in which plants are cultivated in contact with running water but without any soil; Jakobsen says the project’s research holds clear relevance in these terms. “Water-nutrient management, sensor technology, and planthealth monitoring are all directly applicable to land-based food production,” he says. With concern deepening over food scarcity and an awareness that the Earth’s resources are not infinite, there is an increasing focus on improving resource efficiency; the

TIME SCALE develops technologies and systems for monitoring plant cultivation systems in real time. Left: The multi-ion analyser of CleanGrow Ltd offers automated monitoring of nutrients in solution. Middle and right: Gas chromatography and advanced imaging techniques developed by Interscience and Ghent University respectively, provide state-of-the-art possibilities to monitor the plant’s health.


TIME SCALE Technology and Innovation for development of Modular Equipment in SCalable Advanced Life support systems for space Explorations Project Objectives

TIME SCALE develops concepts and nextlevel technology for plant cultivation and monitoring, for use in space and terrestrial applications. In space, future advanced plant cultivation systems may provide astronauts with space-grown food and capabilities for recycling water, nutrients, air and waste. On Earth, nutrient and water recycling and plant health monitoring systems contribute to more efficient and sustainable production.

Project Funding

European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Compet-02-2014), grant agreement No 640231.

Contact Details NTNU Social Research (Norway) Project coordinator Dr. Ann-Iren Kittang Jost T: +47 928 80 298 E: Exploitation and dissemination manager Dr. Øyvind Mejdell Jakobsen E: CleanGrow Ltd. (Ireland) Dr. Roy O’Mahony E: DTM Technologies (Italy) Davide Santachiara E: Ghent University (Belgium) Prof. Dominique Van Der Straeten E: Interscience (Belgium and The Netherlands) Dr. Joeri Vercammen E: Prototech AS (Norway) Dr. Bjarte G.B. Solheim E: University of Stuttgart (Germany) Dr. Stefan Belz E: Wageningen University (The Netherlands) Prof. Leo Marcelis E:

New concepts and systems for cultivating algae and higher plants under different gravity conditions will help to expand our knowledge of how plants behave in Space. University of Stuttgart has designed a new concept for an algae cultivation chamber for flight (left). A breadboard version of an improved Plant Cultivation Chamber has been designed and manufactured by Prototech AS (middle) and will be installed into a Modular Test Bed manufactured by DTM Technologies (right) for ground testing with living plants by NTNU Social Research.

project’s research could shed new light on this topic. “With long-term space travel on a spaceship you clearly don’t have many resources available – so you need to recirculate and re-use as much as possible,” points out Jakobsen. “However, if we look at Earth as our own spaceship, we realize it has limited resources such as clean water and phosphorus.” Improved resource utilization and the development of more sustainable plant production methods are urgent priorities. This rests to a large on a deeper

Preparing for the Moon Village The primary focus of the project is on supporting space investigation however, and in particular life science research in space, including research ideas which would have seemed remote just a few years ago. The concept of a Moon village has developed over recent years, with the idea of establishing a community on the Moon; while the Moon village has not yet taken a definitive form, Kittang Jost says this is an active area of research. “There’s a lot of

The water-nutrient management system, sensor technology, and the plant-health monitoring system are all directly applicable to land-based food production understanding of plant biology, underlining the wider relevance of the TIME SCALE project’s work. “How can we deepen our understanding of plant biology, to a point where we can make production systems that are as resource-efficient as possible?” asks Jakobsen. While re-circulating hydroponic systems are in use in many countries, Jakobsen believes there is still scope for improvement. “New technology and knowledge offer ways to improve on those systems,” he outlines.

work to do in this direction, moving towards technology demonstrators and other research possibilities. There are many opportunities,” she stresses. The TIME SCALE project partners will be in pole position to capitalise on these opportunities, utilising the expertise and knowledge gained during the initiative. “A major motivation behind this project has been to put European companies and universities in a position to be a part of the future development towards a Moon village, or longterm missions towards Mars,” says Jakobsen.

Dr Ann-Iren Kittang Jost Dr Øyvind Mejdell Jakobsen

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Øyvind Mejdell Jakobsen and Ann-Iren Kittang Jost tell us about the TIME SCALE project’s work in developing technologies and know- how to su...