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Madison company wins expanded NASA contract for growing veggies in space

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MADISON — Madison scientists and engineers will be working on bigger and better ways for astronauts to eat fresh food in space, thanks to a contract awarded by NASA.

Sierra Nevada Corp. has signed an agreement with the space agency that will give the company’s Madison operation — formerly known as Orbitec — another two years to work on plant growth modules, some as big as a room.

Madison employees also will advance ways to recycle water and regenerate oxygen to support the crews on long-term, deep space exploration missions.

The research is for NASA’s NextSTEP, or Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program.

The Madison-designed Veggie unit made headlines in 2015 when astronauts grew — and ate — their first crop of lettuce in space. Since then, a bigger “advanced plant habitat” also has been riding on the International Space Station.

Next up will be the “astro garden,” said Bob Morrow, Sierra Nevada’s principal scientist. It will be a modular system, six feet to eight feet tall, that will grow enough vegetables to let the astronauts eat salads on a regular basis and to collect data on “using plants for life support,” Morrow said.

Crop growth will be staggered so that “maybe once a day, each of the crew could have a fresh salad,” he said.

The plants are likely to include radishes, cherry tomatoes and peppers, as well as lettuce, Morrow said, because they can be eaten raw. Eventually, Morrow thinks space vehicles will have some type of fan-driven convection oven. Microwave ovens would not be a good option, though, because they could interfere with the vehicle’s electrical system, he said.

Over the next two years, Sierra Nevada’s Madison employees will be developing a “large-scale prototype, about room size,” Morrow said, with the goal of sending parts of it into space for validation flights in three or four years. The full system probably won’t be ready until sometime in the 2020s, he said.

Morrow has been working on plant-growth systems for use in space for about 35 years. He tackled the issue at the UW-Madison in 1982, when NASA provided a grant to the UW to figure out how to grow potatoes in a controlled environment. Potatoes were identified by NASA as one of six primary life-support crops. Morrow continued his research when he joined Orbitec in 1995.

Meanwhile, employees of Sierra Nevada in Madison also are working on technology to recycle and purify drinking water from waste water, generate oxygen from carbon dioxide and protect crews from radiation in deep space.

The plant growth units will be incorporated into the life-support systems, Morrow said.

“In addition to the plants providing fresh food for the astronauts, they will provide a means to maintain a connection with Mother Earth in the sterile space environment,” Morrow said. “That connection is a huge psychological and nutritional boost to any human in an enclosed environment for a long period of time.”

Space travelers are not the only ones who will benefit from the research in Madison, Sierra Nevada spokeswoman Kimberly Schwandt said.

“A lot of what they’re doing is to (understand) the science of plants,” Schwandt said. From there, the advances could translate into better agriculture prospects on a military submarine or in a Third World country, she said.

“All the valuable science that we’re learning up there can help us on Earth,” she said.

Orbitec has been working on a wide variety of space-related technologies since it was founded in 1988 in Madison. Sierra Nevada — headquartered in Sparks, Nevada, but whose Space Systems business is based in Louisville, Colorado — bought Orbitec in 2014 for an undisclosed amount.

Tribune News Service

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