Feeding the Mission to Mars

Posted on Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

Written by Emma Drake, Communications Intern

White tent structure on rocky terrain at dusk with pink sky
Photo taken by Cody Thompson at base camp of the 2013 Planetary Lake Lander project.

Over 202,000 people from around the world applied to become “Red Planet Explorers” as part of the Mars One project, which aims to land people on the red planet in 2025. Only twenty-four of these volunteers will be selected, but all are vying for this opportunity of a lifetime.

This mission, among others, really is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the bravest of the human population, but it is not without its challenges. Isolating us from the Martian atmosphere, maintaining a stable living environment and growing food in that environment are all obstacles that must be overcome to turn this dream into a reality.

As part of the preparation efforts, University of Guelph researchers are working to make life on Mars easier for these valiant voyageurs.

Thomas Graham, who recently returned to the University of Guelph as research and development manager at the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF), has spent much of his career focusing on growing plants in controlled environments, with particular emphasis on plant production in extreme environments such as the Canadian high arctic and space. After completing his undergraduate, master’s and PhD at the University of Guelph, Thomas applied to the NASA Post-Doctoral Research Program (NPP) for a position at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

“The NPP is a highly competitive program and admittedly, I was surprised to learn that I had been selected for the program,” he shares. “The three years I spent at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center were my most [scientifically] productive to date and, given the opportunity, I hope to bring the work I initiated at KSC back to the University of Guelph.”

Thomas began his research in alternative environments in the Canadian high arctic while working as a research fellow with CESRF. For ten years he spent his summers on Devon Island, the largest uninhabited island on Earth, testing the viability of greenhouses on a 39 million-year-old impact crater that has been preserved in the cold climate.

Tom standing on ladder and drilling into the side of a large greenhouse structure
Thomas installing exhaust fans in a greenhouse on Devon Island. With clear skies and 24-hour light, cooling was actually one of the greatest challenges for the team during the arctic summer.

Remotely controlled greenhouses were also of interest to Cody Thompson, at that time a third-year environmental engineering student at the University of Guelph. After watching a presentation on CESRF research and being given a tour around the facility, Cody was hooked.

“It was the coolest place I had ever seen in my life,” Cody shares. “I followed up with Mike (CESRF Director and EMC Chair) immediately after the tour asking about completing a co-op placement there, and luckily enough they brought me in that summer.”

After completing his master’s and PhD, Cody now works full-time with Thomas at CESRF. They focus their research on improving controlled environment plant production, with a particular focus on improving the life-support systems for those who will first set foot on Mars. Developing new crop varieties, technologies and horticultural management protocols that will improve crop production in spaceflight environments and also on Earth is the focus of Thomas’ research, which was spurred by his time at the Kennedy Space Center.

“Oddly enough, space [for crop production] in space is limited,” notes Thomas. “Plants must be small without sacrificing production if they are to be viable candidates for life-support systems in space.”

In his last two years of the three-year post-doctoral program with NASA, Thomas worked with Dr. Ray Wheeler dwarfing crops to make them suitable for spaceflight food production. Collaborating with experts from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who were working to develop disease resistance in plums, they found that continuous over-expression of a particular gene (Flowering Locus T, aka FT)  lead to early on-set of flowering and fruit production. The over expression of the FT gene also disrupted the apical dominance of the plant, which causes trees to grow straight and tall, resulting in smaller, bush-like plants. As a final stroke of luck, the plum trees with overexpressed FT were also able to flower and produce fruit continuously, rather than all at once, eliminating the need to shut down parts of the life support system to provide the dormancy typically required for tree fruit. All of these new traits overcome the previous barriers that prevented the inclusion of tree fruit as crops for life-support during human space exploration.

Purple plum plant growing in dense green leaves
This engineered plum ’tree’ is really more of a vine that flowers and produces fruit continuously. This ’tree’ is more suited to spaceflight than the typical trees you would find in an orchard.

“A further benefit of including plums as a candidate crop for space exploration is their pharmaceutical benefits,” Thomas explains. “Plums have a natural phytochemical component that helps prevent bone loss, which is a huge issue for astronauts living and working in microgravity.”

With the ability to reduce the structure of plants to a spaceflight-compatible size, the next step is to optimize their growing environment and nutrient provision to ensure efficient production. Cody spent a month at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in February 2012 getting a crash course in exactly how this is done.

Shadowing and learning from his predecessor at CESRF, Dr. Matt Bamsey, Cody learned the ropes of efficiently managing nutrient solutions using optical sensors or “optodes” in the lab where Matt was working at the CSA.

“Plants change their eating habits over time,” Cody notes. “One nutrient solution won’t always have the right proportions, but it is wasteful to empty to the hydroponic system and refill it with a new solution when you think the plants are changing their habits.”

Cody is working with the optodes to sense and react to changes in the nutrient solutions. With time, he hopes to advance the technology so that when deficiencies or excesses are found in the solution, the sensor will send the feedback to a control system that will automatically adjust the solution. Increasing the automation of the system will provide explorers and astronauts more time to focus on important exploration and scientific tasks, without having to worry about food production.

In December 2013, Cody had the opportunity to do a preliminary test on the development of the optode sensors in Chile. He was invited by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute (Carl Sagan Center) to participate on a research mission in the Andes Mountains. For seven days, Cody worked with scientists from around the world to remotely monitor water quality in one of the high altitude lakes using sensor technology, in preparation for the exploration of Titan, a moon of Saturn on which the only liquid lakes outside of Earth have been discovered.

“The expedition taught me a lot about the mobility and practicality of the sensors. It really was a driving force to push my technology to where it is today,” Cody shares.

NASA equipment floating on lake with mountains behind
The Planetary Lake Lander prototype in Chile that is designed to test systems for exploration of Saturn's moon Titan.

The work Cody and Thomas continue to pursue at CESRF is vital to ensuring that explorers and astronauts remain productive and healthy by providing them with continual access to fresh food.

Cody continues to develop his sensors while Thomas continues to focus on preparing the plums, and eventually other crops, for growth in the unique conditions present in space.

As for blasting off themselves, they both agree they’ll stick to watching for now.

“I love the fact that I am contributing to the systems that will keep astronauts alive and well as they push humanity out into the solar system,” shares Thomas, “but I’ll keep my feet on the ground for now.“

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