A few weeks ago, when I watched The Martian, I was blown away by Matt Damon's ability to grow plants in outer space –– and not just outer space, but Mars. Then I remembered that I was watching a movie –– a fictional movie –– and growing vegetables in outer space isn't possible.
Or is it?
It may be, thanks to advancements in LED technology.
Philips has been using LED lighting in horticulture to optimize farming methods for sustainable, year-long crop cultivation for years. The light is tailored to the stage of the plant, meaning faster growth, bigger harvests, and higher quality plants. This is certainly no new concept –– using lighting to aid crop cultivation –– as Philips has been applying their technology to crop growth for more than 75 years. However, now with the advancements in LED technology, they are able to build custom solutions to suit the specific needs of the farm/greenery.
Similarly, for years, NASA has been researching how to grow fresh produce on the International Space Station and now, with its vegetable production system, "Veggie", it's possible. In 2014, Veggie was sent to the International Space Station where they spent the remainder of 2014 and part of 2015 growing red lettuce with red, blue, and green LED lights.
The lettuce had to be tested by doctors and NASA safety representatives to make sure the lettuce was safe to eat. And last year the crew got the go-ahead to eat the lettuce as it was safe. They were also sent flower seeds, zinnias, to grow.
On Dec. 27, 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted, "Our plants aren't looking too good. Would be a problem on Mars. I'm going to have to channel my inner Mark Watney." The flowers seemed to be experiencing an excess of humidity, causing mold to grow. Even though it may seem as though the flowers were failing, this information is so important for scientists to learn what works and what doesn't in space.
After some adjustments in the conditions, Kelly tweeted another picture on Jan. 8, 2016, "Some of my space flowers are on the rebound! No longer looking sad!" And by Jan. 12, the flowers had sprouted buds.
Looking forward into the future, this is a huge advancement as space missions extend farther into space. The length of expeditions is no longer limited by transportable food
And growing fresh produce has multiple benefits: food, yes, plus a psychological boost, NASA says. Growing something green –– "a little piece of earth" –– while on a mission in space could have tremendous positive values and impact on crew members. NASA official Dr. Ray Wheeler elaborated on the benefits:
"There is evidence that supports fresh foods, such as tomatoes,
LEDs play a vital role not only here on earth, saving energy and money, but they will also play a vital role in space as we will use them to grow new life in places undiscovered.