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Husker team aiming to establish first center for space agricultureHusker team aiming to establish first center for space agriculture

Long-term goal is finding ways to grow food on space stations, the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies.

November 9, 2023

3 Min Read

It’s little wonder that so much of the early research into space exploration would focus on escaping orbit, or that the source of that escape, the rocket, would occupy so many minds with the cosmic ambition to match their intellect.

But that ambition fueled the race to space at least as much as liquid hydrogen did. And so, as the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Yufeng Ge and Santosh Pitla witnessed the astronomical advances of their own era — reusable rockets landing back on Earth, a drone taking flight on Mars — the Husker engineers began thinking big about an aspect of space travel just obvious enough to often escape attention.

“We’ll be on Mars and the moon, we’ll have settlements — and people got to eat,” said Pitla, associate professor of biological systems engineering.

Before long, the duo was applying for and earning a two-year Grand Challenges grant from Nebraska’s Office of Research and Economic Development. Ge and Pitla’s long-term goal is about as ambitious as it gets: finding ways to sustainably grow food on space stations, the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies that might eventually sustain legions of human ones. To do it, they formed the Consortium of Space, Policy, Agriculture, Climate and Extreme Environment — SPACE2, for short.

The consortium’s short-term aim doesn’t exactly lean modest, either. It may not rank with the near-vacuum of space, but Ge and Pitla would come to learn of a sizable void: No U.S. university features a center dedicated specifically to the study of space agriculture. The researchers want Nebraska to house the first.

“If NASA or the big space companies — SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin — want to go out and work with a university, who would that be?” Pitla said. “We have been doing ag research for more than 100 years, and we’re an ag state. Why reinvent the wheel somewhere else when we already have all this experience?”

It helps, Ge said, that Nebraska U “sits very, very nicely in that intersection” of multidisciplinary expertise and force-multiplier collaboration that the rigors and relentlessness of space will demand. The university-housed Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, the recent recipient of a $19 million grant to pursue sustainable irrigation and mechanization in developing countries, has long endeavored to grow more food with less water. Ge’s own research into ag-relevant sensors is likewise informing more precise, efficient application of fertilizer and water, both of which will prove even more precious in space than on Earth. Pitla has spearheaded the engineering and testing of Flex-Ro, an autonomous planter that can already seed a 5-acre, untilled field on its own.

“Before humans go to Mars, we’ll want some essential resources there — and for that, we will send robots,” Pitla said. “Think about a greenhouse on a spaceship that’s landed on Mars, and it’s already started growing food. You need a fully automated, robotic farmer that is doing those things even before humans arrive.”

The Department of Agronomy’s work in plant genetics, meanwhile, gets applied at the Greenhouse Innovation Center, where a combination of infrared cameras and AI-powered imaging analysis has accelerated the breeding of crop varieties that endure amid temperature extremes and drought.

“The only difference between that and what we’ll be doing in space is, well, nothing,” said David Jones, a member of the team and professor of biological systems engineering. “Space is just another one of those extreme environments.”

In assembling their consortium, the engineers were careful not to overlook the value of related but less obvious expertise. They invited multiple colleagues from the Nebraska College of Law, which has emerged as an international leader in the thorny, unprecedented realm of legality and ownership in space. And they folded in faculty from the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, whose ability to conceptualize the future has already given the engineers and scientists plenty to chew on.

“If it’s not going to work here,” Jones said of a space ag center, “it’s not going to work.”

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