The problem being solved: The ability to grow fresh food in space can greatly enhance an astronauts’ health and quality of life. Protecting crops in space from stresses (such as overwatering) or diseases is essential for maintaining this nutritional resource, but these threats often are not always visible to the human eye, and astronauts’ busy schedules may not allow time for crop monitoring. Automated monitoring systems would address these issues, but the technologies used on Earth are too large and too heavy to be useful on a space mission.
The technology solution:The new compact, automated sensing technology designed for use in a controlled-environment agriculture setting reflects the scientific expertise of two agencies: sensing technology development expertise from the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and controlled-environment Space Crop production expertise from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). The current imaging system moves a camera back and forth along the length of a controlled-environment growth chamber, collecting images of salad crops (such as lettuce) under visible, near-infrared and ultraviolet light. How the plants look when exposed to these light sources can tell scientists how healthy they are with the added potential to provide insights regarding the nutritional content, food safety, and other aspects of plant physiology. In experiments, when some of the plants were subjected to drought and other stressful conditions, the system successfully detected early signs of stress on the plants’ leaves.
The tech transfer mechanisms: In 2019, a three-year interagency agreement was established between ARS and KSC for the creation of compact technologies for automated sensing in controlled-environment Space Crop production. In July 2022, that agreement was extended for two more years. A joint patent application is now being considered for the new compact multimodal 4D imaging technology (to include hyperspectral, fluorescence, LIDAR and thermal imaging) developed jointly by the same two partners. In addition, ARS has expanded a Collaborative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with an industry partner to cover the development of monitoring technologies for space agriculture; these efforts will include collaboration with KSC.
The outcomes: The successful demonstration of new technologies for early detection of problems affecting plant health and food safety as part of controlled-environment crop production systems will minimize NASA’s crop losses on the International Space Station and ensure the provision of safe and nutritious fresh food for future space missions. These technologies will also be useful for earthbound applications in controlled-environment agriculture. At the time of this award submission, the research had produced one peer-reviewed journal publication and two conference presentations, which will increase awareness of the technologies and the interagency collaboration.
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