Washington: An inflatable greenhouse has been designed by a team of NASA scientists which astronauts could one day use to grow fresh food and produce oxygen on other planets like Mars or Moon.
The prototype involves an inflatable, deployable greenhouse to support plant and crop production for nutrition, air revitalisation, water recycling and waste recycling.
Though astronauts are successfully growing plants and vegetables aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but NASA wants to develop long-term methods that could help sustain pioneers working in deep space.
Ray Wheeler, lead scientist at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida said, "The new approach uses plants to scrub carbon dioxide, while providing food and oxygen."
Wheeler added that astronauts exhale carbon dioxide, which is then introduced into the greenhouse, and the plants then generate oxygen through photosynthesis.
The water cycle begins with water that is brought along or found at the lunar or Martian landing site.
Water is oxygenated, given nutrient salts, and it continuously flows across the root zone of the plants and returned to the storage system.
Tests involving the Prototype Lunar Greenhouse at the University of Arizona in the US have included determining what plants, seeds or other materials should be taken along to make the system work on the Moon or Mars.
The US space agency said, learning what to take and what to gather on site will be crucial for living on distant locations. Using available resources located or grown on site is a practice called in-situ resource utilisation, or ISRU.
NASA scientists and engineers are developing systems to harness resources such as water that should be available in certain areas of the lunar or martian surface to support missions lasting for months or years.
Gene Giacomelli, professor at the University of Arizona said, "We are mimicking what the plants would have if they were on Earth and make use of these processes for life support."
Giacomelli said, "The entire system of the lunar greenhouse does represent, in a small way, the biological systems that are here on Earth."
He said that the next big step is to use additional lunar greenhouse units for specialised testing to ensure the system being developed will adequately support a crew of astronauts working on the Moon or Mars.
He added, "We will develop computer models to simulate what we are doing to automatically control the environment and provide a constant level of oxygen."
The prototypes now being developed are cylindrical - 18 feet long and more than 8 feet in diameter and were built by Sadler Machine Company, one of the project partners.
According to NASA, to protect from radiation in space, the greenhouse units would likely be buried under surface soil or regolith thus requiring specialised lighting.
Wheeler added, "We have been successful in using electric LED (light emitting diode) lighting to grow plants. We also have tested hybrids using both natural and artificial lighting."
(With IANS inputs)