TPU scientists develop an autonomous orbital greenhouse

A team of Tomsk Polytechnic University jointly with scientists from other Tomsk universities and research institutes develop an orbital greenhouse, an autonomous module, which enables cultivating various plants in space. TPU expects that this project will be put in the list of the ISS long-term experiment program.

Photo: plants, cultivated in smart TPU greenhouse

The approved program of experiments includes several TPU projects3D printing, Peresvet, and Swarm of Small Spacecraft. Their implementation will begin in 2020.

According to Aleksei Yakovlev, head of the TPU School of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies, another promising area of space experiments is the creation of an Orbital Biological Automatic Module. Numerous orbital experiments have confirmed the possibility of cultivating agricultural plants under microgravity conditions.

However, these studies were carried out based on greenhouses located in the living compartments of the orbital stations. Therefore, their design had many limitations and technological obstacles related to the specific requirements of inhabited space modules and extremely limited room.

Scientists suggest developing a specialized orbital greenhouse to scale, develop, and improve technologies for cultivating important agricultural crops. The project team includes researchers from TPU, TSU, TUSUR, the Institute of Petroleum Chemistry (SB RAS) and the Siberian Research Institute of Agriculture and Peat.

“Currently we are preparing an application for the experiment, and working through the preliminary design and technical solutions. In 2020, we should complete the application and submit it. Then, a coordination council will evaluate its relevance and importance.

It tends to take a year and a half from the application to the start of the experiment, so we expect to join a long-term program and receive funding in 2021,” Aleksei Yakovlev says.

The orbital greenhouse will be based on technologies developed at TPU as the part of a smart greenhouse project such as smart lighting accelerating plant growth, special hydroponic equipment, automatic irrigation, and harvesting solutions. Currently, the Tomsk test ground is under reconstruction to expand the smart greenhouse capacities

“In Tomsk, we will conduct interdisciplinary studies and solve applied problems in the field of agrobiophotonics. At the same time, the research team includes scientists from Tomsk, Moscow, Vladivostok, and international partners from the Netherlands specializing in climate complexes including one from Wageningen University.

As for the orbital greenhouse development, we assume that it will be an autonomous module capable of supplying food for astronauts and, if necessary, docking to the ISS through a gateway. The cultivation area is planned to be 30 m2. Furthermore, its cylindrical shape should help to adapt to different gravity conditions, which enables its use in the distant future, for instance, on the Moon or on Mars.

The gravity index will be set by the rotation speed of the module around its axis. We also expect that the module will be made of flexible material to compact assembly and automatic orbital unpacking,” Aleksei Yakovlev says.

The design and engineering solutions of the module should take into account external factors of outer space, natural irradiation of the sun, application of smart lighting, automated harvesting, special systems for irrigation and soil holding.

Another important issue is the selection of necessary and most suitable agricultural crops and their protection against pathogens in microgravity. We offer various types of lettuce, leeks, basil, and other crops for cultivation in the module.

the specialists underlines.