GREENCube is the first space vegetable garden experiment launched into orbit with the maiden flight of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) new VEGA-C launcher from the Kourou base in French Guiana, together with the LARES2 scientific satellite and five other nano-satellites. The micro vegetable garden measuring 30 x 10 x 10 centimetres was designed by an all-Italian scientific team consisting of ENEA, the Federico II University of Naples and Sapienza University of Rome, in the role of coordinator and contractor with the Italian Space Agency (ASI).
Based on closed-loop hydroponics and equipped with specific lighting, temperature and humidity control systems to meet the restrictive requirements of space environments, GREENCube is able to guarantee a complete growth cycle of micro-vegetables selected from among the most suitable to withstand extreme conditions – in this case watercress – at high productivity, for 20 days of experiments.
Housed in a pressurised, confined environment, GREENCube is also equipped with an integrated hi-tech sensor system for remote monitoring and control of environmental parameters, growth and plant health, and will transmit all acquired data to the ground in total autonomy. The satellite consists of two units: the first contains the micro-vegetables, the cultivation and environmental control system, the nutrient solution, the necessary atmosphere and the sensors; the second unit houses the spacecraft’s management and control platform.
“Space research is focusing on the development of bio-regenerative systems to support life in space. Plants play a key role as a source of fresh food to supplement pre-packaged food rations and ensure a balanced nutritional intake, which is essential for human survival in harsh environmental conditions”, explains Luca Nardi of the ENEA Biotechnology Laboratory. “Small soil-less cultivation systems such as the GREENCube can play a key role in meeting the crew’s food needs, minimising operating time and avoiding contamination thanks to the automated control of environmental conditions. That’s why after the successful launch of the rocket and the release of its payload into orbit, we will anxiously await the optimum internal temperatures to give the go-ahead for experimentation to start”, he concludes.
The in-orbit cultivation system will maximise efficiency in terms of both volume and consumption of energy, air, water and nutrients, and parallel ground cultivation experiments inside an exact replica of the satellite are also planned during the mission to test the effects of radiation, low pressure and microgravity on plants.
The comparison of the results of experiments carried out in space and on the ground will be crucial to assessing the response of plants to extreme stress conditions and the growth of microgreens in orbit in order to use them as fresh, highly nutritious food on future missions.
“In addition to their ability to convert carbon dioxide into edible biomass, plants are able to regenerate valuable resources such as air, water and mineral nutrients”, Nardi points out, “but also not to be underestimated is the psychological benefit for the crew deriving from the cultivation and consumption of fresh vegetables that recall the familiarity of terrestrial habits and environments to cope with the psychological stress the astronauts are subjected to due to the conditions of isolation in a totally artificial environment”.
Joining GREENCube on board the rocket and in orbit are five other mini-satellites of the CubeSat class. They constitute the launcher’s secondary payload and are: the Italian AstroBio and ALPHA, the Slovenian Trisat-R and the two French MTCube-2 and Celesta, while the main payload is the LARES-2 satellite of the Italian Space Agency (ASI), which will conduct studies in the field of general relativity and other theories of fundamental physics.
Developed by the Italian company Avio, the new Vega-C rocket represents the latest evolution of the European Vega launcher inaugurated in 2012 but now larger, more powerful, more versatile and with a higher payload capacity at a lower cost.
For more information:
Luca Nardi, ENEA – Biotechnology Laboratory, firstname.lastname@example.org