Far above Tucson, among the stars, astronauts have successfully learned to grow plants and vegetables aboard the International Space Station.
Closer to home, engineers and scientists – including SIE professor Roberto Furfaro – are working with researchers at NASA to develop long-term methods to sustain workers in deep space, like the moon or Mars.
Furfaro is the principal technical investigator on the Prototype Lunar/Mars Greenhouse project, alongside agricultural and biosystems engineering professor Gene Giacomelli, the project's co-principal investigator and director of the University of Arizona's Controlled Environment Agricultural Center.
Working with some 20 researchers from different disciplines across the U.S., Furfaro and Giacomelli spent nearly a decade building a fully functional prototype of a lunar and Martian greenhouse. They've since determined the plants, seeds and other materials needed to make the system viable on Mars, having successfully grown vegetables such as sweet potatoes and lettuce. The next step is specialized testing to ensure the system will support a crew on Mars or the moon for an extended period of time.
Furfaro, who is also director of the Space Systems Engineering Lab at the UA, is helping develop computer models to simulate the researchers' ability to monitor and control the greenhouse's environment and ability to provide adequate oxygen.
CEAC has grown food in desolate environments before; its greenhouse in Antarctica provides vegetables to workers at the National Science Foundation's base.
Photo: The inside of a hydroponic plant growth chamber designed by the Prototype Lunar Greenhouse at the UA. It employs plants and crop production designed to provide not only food, but air revitalization, water recycling and waste recycling.