Welcome interplanetary gardeners! This week’s Gardeners off World starts with a little video Boeing has put together of the inside of the crew cabin on the recent Starliner test flight (the one that took tree seeds into space). You can see Rosie the instrumented mannequin, but the highlight is watching astronaut Snoopy float about as the spacecraft reaches orbit, and then plop back down into his seat during the descent!

An exciting new project in Iceland will build the world’s first geo-climate biodome. Looking a bit like the Eden Project, it will be home to food gardens, restaurants and spaces for things like yoga classes. The idea is to have a carbon-neutral, year-round venue, ten minutes from Reykjavik. It will have three different climate zones and is due to open in 2023.

Artist’s rendering of the interior of the Mediterranean dome at ALDIN Biodome Reykjavik.
[Image credit: WilkinsonEyre]

The Farm Lab zone will have the latest vertical farming technology, an organic food market, a restaurant and educational spaces. The Biodome will be heated using Iceland’s geothermal energy – in this case, hot spring water from an onsite source.

Ever wondered how to say ‘astronaut’ in Icelandic? Language Drops have a handy recording, and if you scroll down the page, it tells you how to write astronaut in 32 different languages.

Lashelle Spencer, a plant scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, takes measurements on ‘Red Robin’ dwarf tomato plants, January 10, 2019. [Image credit: NASA/Cory Huston]

At the Kennedy Space Center, NASA has been growing ‘Red Robin’ dwarf tomatoes from seeds researchers exposed to simulated solar particle radiation. Scientists will measure the plants’ edible mass and nutrients, and compare them to a control crop grown from non-irradiated seeds. The aim of the project is to confirm that nutritious, high-quality produce can be reliably grown in deep space. An alternative outcome is that the results will guide the development of countermeasures to protect future crop foods from radiation. 

It looks like tomatoes are scheduled to be grown on the ISS soon, as part of the VEG-05 experiment set in the Veggie growth chamber.

The plant-powered sensor developed by Plant-e and Lacuna Space can transmit agricultural data to satellites. [Image credit: Lacuna]

Much closer to home (for me, anyway), an Oxfordshire-based company has developed the first plant-powered sensor to transmit to a satellite in space. Lacuna Space partnered with Plant-e in the Netherlands to develop the ‘Internet of Things’ sensor, which doesn’t need a battery – as long as the plants continue to grow, electricity will be produced.

The low-powered device sends radio signals to satellites in low Earth orbit. It can transmit data on air humidity, soil moisture and temperature, and is designed to inform farmers about the conditions of their crops to help increase yield. It will also provide buyers with detailed information about the forthcoming harvest. You can read more in the ESA report.

Researchers from the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU), Chair of Cell Biology, and the Institute of Aerospace Medicine at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) launched a satellite into space with a greenhouse on board. [Image: FAU / Kurt Fuchs]

SpaceDaily has bid farewell to the Eu:CROPIS mission. The Eu:CROPIS satellite developed by the German Aerospace Center has been in a polar orbit for more than a year. It’s home to four experiments, three of which yielded good results: the RAdiation Measurement In Space (RAMIS) instrument, the NASA PowerCell experiment, and the SCalable On-BoaRd Computing Experiment (SCORE) computer.

Sadly the same cannot be said for the most exciting experiment onboard. The satellite also carries the Eu:CROPIS (Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-Food Production in Space) experiment. The aim was to use two greenhouses with a symbiotic community of bacteria, single-celled algae (Euglena) and synthetic urine fertiliser to grow ‘Micro Tina’ tomatoes under the gravitational conditions found on the Moon and Mars. It was a first step towards testing how biological life support systems could be used to supply food on long-term missions.

Unfortunately, a software update in January 2019 resulted in problems communicating with the two greenhouses. They transitioned into safe mode, and the mission team were unable to correct the problem. Although the greenhouses and their technologies are still functional, they can’t initiate the irrigation that would begin the experiment.

The satellite is in a relatively low orbit 600 kilometres above Earth. It will gradually lose altitude over the next two decades, and ultimately burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Get free delivery on plants, seeds and bulbs from Thompson & Morgan this weekend. [Affiliate link]

Last year, thousands of bees took part in an analog simulation at the Lunares Research Station in Poland. For humans, the site simulates what it would be like to live on the Moon or on Mars. To investigate whether bees could be used to pollinate off-world greenhouses, researchers ran two experiments, Habeetat-1 and Habeetat-2, each a week long. The results were terrible – many bees died, and the colony stopped hatching replacements. 

A chip used to monitor the temperature, humidity, and weight of the hive.

More experiments are planned for this year, to try and provide conditions in which the bees can thrive. However, the researchers are also investigating designs for swarms of autonomous mini drones that could act as artificial pollinators.

ESA research fellow Alexandre Meurisse and Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow producing oxygen and metal out of simulated moondust inside ESA’s Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory. Credit: ESA–A. Conigili

ESA has opened a prototype oxygen plant at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands. We know from the samples brought back from the Moon during the Apollo missions that lunar regolith is 40–45% oxygen by weight. Although oxygen is the single most abundant element in the regolith, it is bound up in minerals or glass.

ESTEC is using a method called molten salt electrolysis to extract the oxygen. The regolith is placed in a metal basket with molten calcium chloride salt and heated to 950°C. Passing a current through the basket allows the oxygen to be collected, and also converts the regolith into usable metal alloys.

The aim is to develop a pilot plant that could operate sustainably on the Moon, with the first technology demonstration targeted for the mid-2020s.

“Being able to acquire oxygen from resources found on the Moon would obviously be hugely useful for future lunar settlers, both for breathing and in the local production of rocket fuel.”

Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow, via SciTechDaily

In 2015, researcher Mari Foroutan put together this TED-Ed lesson on living on Mars, with animation by Nick Hilditch. Marzieh (Mari) Foroutan was a PhD student in geography at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Mansour Esnaashary Esfahani was a PhD student there in civil engineering. In unbelievably sad news, they have both been confirmed as victims of the crash of Ukrainian International Airlines flight that was shot down by Iran on January 8. 

On a happier note, GoffW ends today with a lovely video about how the LaTrappe brewery in Tilburg has combined space-age technology and a greenhouse full of tropical plants to recycle all of their wastewater.

“When you think like an astronaut, there is no such thing as waste. Everything is circular.”