UA uses lunar greenhouse to find sustainability solution on Earth
Sean Gellenbeck, a systems and industrial engineering graduate student, pollinates tomatoes in the prototype lunar greenhouse on June 11. Gellenbeck is one of the students who helps keep the prototype lunar greenhouse running.
UA scientists have created a lunar greenhouse, an idea that could one day allow people to live on the moon or Mars.
For now, it serves as a tool UA scientists hope to use to educate the world on the challenges facing the human race. In their new documentary, “Earthlight,” the UA scientists ask if learning to live on the moon is the key to sustainability on Earth.
A lunar greenhouse acts as a controlled replica of Earth’s ecosystem scaled down into a cylinder-shaped greenhouse that attempts to mimic the Earth systems into a “closed atmosphere,” as explained in a press release for the documentary produced by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The documentary interviews NASA scientists, UA researchers and students.
The entire system represents, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth by utilizing a self-sustaining water cycle and atmospheric cycle that can be used to harvest food and keep humans alive for a short period of time in rough conditions, or eventually on Mars, the documentary explains.
Scientists said that lunar greenhouse technology can also help create better sustainable food production here on Earth.
Today, many countries have multiple cities with more than a million people, including China, which has more than 100 such cities, said Joel Cuello, professor of agriculture and biosystems engineering.
The prediction is that by 2030, China will have more than 220 cities with more than 1 million people each, which is part of a global trend population increase that could impact the resources we have to produce food, the documentary states.
“The prediction is that we are going to need 70 percent more food in the middle of the century than what we have today,” Cuello said.
In order for lunar greenhouses to be efficient on the moon or Mars, scientists needed to recreate the external space environment on Earth, called an “analog,” said Phil Sadler, lunar greenhouse originator and president of Sadler Machine Co. This means simulating an environment dealing with extreme temperatures with little to no atmospheric pressure and other harsh living conditions. Ultimately, it led to setting up a research station in the barren snow-covered desert of the South Pole, according to the film.
“[We] identified the South Pole station as the best analog for the moon and Mars,” Sadler said.
In addition, there are training simulations done at the South Pole greenhouse that recreate situations that may occur during lunar greenhouse missions. These require an operator platform where a real time data center on Earth can be used to monitor and communicate with astronauts on the moon or Mars, indicating key variables and resource balances of the lunar greenhouse system and providing directions and suggestions for better management, the film said.
“What we learn from this controlled environment system will, and already is being applied here on Earth, and it’s produced great food in urban areas or in areas that are not normally thought of as food production areas,” said Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center.
As far as the vision to one day put a self-sustaining lunar greenhouse on the moon or Mars, UA scientists are optimistic. This could also happen sooner than one think.
“This [lunar greenhouse] would be a driver for one day creating a space colony on the moon or Mars, and it also opens the door for a revolution in how we design our cities over the long term,” Cuello said.