A DWARF wheat crop and vegetables are just some of 20 plants that have been grown onboard space stations, as researchers continue the race to find crops that will help keep humans alive on Mars.
Humans are expected to reach Mars by 2040 and unlike water, oxygen and fuel, which can be mainly produced and recycled in space, food is not readily available.
Harvesting crops for resupply from Earth is simply not a viable option - since astronauts travelling to Mars would have to wait about nine months for it to arrive and would be left pretty hungry.
So, a heap of researchers, including the University of Adelaide's Waite Research director Matthew Gilliham and School of Agriculture Food and Wine's Jenny Mortimer, whom happen to also be plant scientists, have joined the race.
There's been an unprecedented amount of activity centered around space, according to professor Gilliham and sustaining human life on Mars has become somewhat an obsession for the sector.
With deep-space exploration high on its agenda, working out how to take everything but the kitchen sink to survive is not easy but possible, according to professor Gilliham.
"When we move deeper into space, at its closest point, Mars is 55 million kilometres away and is obviously impractical to supply resources to," professor Gilliham said.
It is not just a potential three-year round trip to deliver food that puts researchers off but also the amount of food required for an average team of astronauts.
An astronomical 10-tonnes of food would be required for a Mars voyage and professor Gilliham has high hopes that it can consist of more than just dehydrated meals.
At this stage, two systems to grow food onboard a spacecraft have been successful.
The Advanced Plant Habitation and The Vegetable Production System, known as Veggie, a space garden residing on the space station.
Both systems are about a metre cube in volume, tray of plants.
The APH, like Veggie, is a growth chamber on station for plant research.
It uses LED lights and a porous clay substrate with controlled release fertiliser to deliver water, nutrients and oxygen to the plant roots.
But unlike Veggie, it is enclosed and automated with cameras and more than 180 sensors that are in constant interactive contact with a team on the ground in the USA, so it doesn't need much day-to-day care from the crew.
Its water recovery and distribution, atmosphere content, moisture levels and temperature are all automated.
When a harvest is ready for research studies, the crew collects samples from the plants, freezes or chemically fixes them to preserve them, and sends them back down to Earth to be studied so scientists can better understand how space affected their growth and development.
The Veggie garden is about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage and typically holds six plants.
Each plant grows in a "pillow" filled with a clay-based growth media and fertiliser.
The pillows are important to help distribute water, nutrients and air in a healthy balance around the roots.
Professor Gilliham said while this was perfect for a bit of garnish on a meal and a psychological boost, work still needs to be done.
"Chilies were the latest crop to be grown but we can go beyond that," he said.
"We need to establish how can we scale up from a metre cubed system to advanced production systems to create a self-sustainable space craft with food supply."
Plants also make people happy and associate professor Mortimer said researchers have found mental health and wellbeing advantages through growing crops while heading out on voyages.
"On Earth we rely on plants for so many things and often we take plants for granted," she said.
"It is easy however to think about the joy we gain from having a green surroundings and that during isolation, many took up gardening - it is core to our physical and mental wellbeing."
Despite strawberries, carrots, radishes and many other crops being a success in space, it was difficult to determine the suitability of cereals.
"Cereals take a long time to grow and we need to grow plants that can be utilised entirely to reduce waste," associate professor Mortimer said.
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