UK-based vertical farming R&D company Vertical Future has announced their involvement in developing a Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) facility to be used in future space exploration missions after receiving a research grant from the UK Space Agency.
The UK Space Agency project will be led by the firm working in partnership with international experts in both plant biology and space technologies and operations, including Axiom Space, Saber Astronautics, the University of Southern Queensland, along with their Plants for Space (P4S) research partners at the University of Adelaide and the University of Cambridge. As a result of this project, Vertical Future says it will be the first UK-based company working in the agri-space sector.
Phase One of the project will focus on researching the design requirements for a fully-autonomous agriculture system that can be monitored and operated remotely or through the use of AI and will be used to support space explorations including future Moon-to-Mars Artemis missions.
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will host a workshop where the project team can research and develop the specifications for a CEA facility that can cope with the constraints and challenges found in deep space, onboard the International Space Station (ISS). The team will also test data transfer requirements between the Vertical Future facilities installed at Vertical Future’s R&D site in London and The Waite Research Institute, University of Adelaide, Australia. Phase Two will focus on implementing the CEA system on the ISS and also into the world’s first commercial space station which is currently being developed by project partner, Axiom Space. The Axiom Station is being developed to eventually replace the current ISS once it reaches the end of its life.
The project team’s research will benefit us here on Earth and be used to support the development of more efficient CEA systems (vertical farms). By incorporating the project’s research, CEA systems on Earth will be able to continue to evolve and become more efficient and effective. Vertical farming can already produce a wide variety of higher quality fresh produce that will keep prices down for consumers and offer a more reliable source due to the lack of effect caused by extreme weather conditions or disruptions to the supply chain. These facilities can produce fresh produce in urban or degraded environments, minimising the need for labour and resource inputs such as water, energy, fertiliser, and pesticides, while maximising yields, reducing reliance on imports, keeping costs down for consumers, and combatting supply chain issues.
Dr Jennifer Bromley, Chief Scientific Officer at Vertical Future, said: “We are excited to have the opportunity to work alongside global experts in both plant biology and space technology to develop life-changing technology. Several studies have shown that having access to high-quality fresh produce is important not just for one’s nutrition but also their mental well-being. Astronauts typically lack access to a varied diet whilst in space which this project is working to solve, by providing a wide variety of high-quality produce that can be grown on a space vessel. While this project may sound like the plotline of The Martian, it is important to develop new and innovative ways for astronauts to survive and thrive in their ventures to not just the Moon but also Mars and beyond. As we have seen with many other technological advances thanks to the space industry, we will also be able to apply our findings here on earth, where we continue to develop Vertical Future technologies.”
Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “Working with other space agencies and organisations across the globe through our International Bilateral Fund allows us to draw on skills that enhance our homegrown expertise and capabilities, drive up investment in the UK, and support world-class science and discovery. Projects like this, which will see Vertical Future work with the University of Cambridge and partners in Australia and the US to develop the use of autonomous agriculture technology for space exploration, highlight the many ways in which we can collaborate with the global space community to help humanity push the boundaries of space innovation and unlock commercial opportunities that will benefit our economy now and in the future.”
Christian Maender, EVP In-Space Solution, Axiom Space, said: “International collaborations are an important component of a future robust space economy. Axiom Space is pleased to work with this world-class team and to provide a platform for testing next-generation designs in low-Earth orbit to support future exploration to the lunar surface, Mars and beyond. This unique collaboration, supported by the UK Space Agency, stands to provide agricultural innovation that will benefit life on Earth and contribute to sustaining a human presence on other planets as part of continued exploration goals.”
Dr Jason Held, CEO of Saber Astronautics said: “Sending plants to space is key to survival in long-duration space travel and plans for future settlement. Making plants thrive in space will take a mix of experts in botany, engineering, and operations to make it happen. We are delighted to join this exciting consortium to provide the operational component for the Vertical Farm project.”
Prof. Matthew Gilliham, Director of P4S ARC Centre of Excellence at Waite Research Insititute, University of Adelaide, added: “We thank the UK Space Agency for their vision and initiative that partners industry and academic leaders from around the world to come together to build an inspired future – in our case, technology that will deliver more sustainable food production on Earth, whilst enabling humans to go further in space than ever before.”
Prof. Alex Webb, Chair of Cell Signalling in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, added: “The Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge explores plant biology from the level of single molecules to the scale of glial biology, and we are very excited to extend our research into the realm of space.”