By Jeffrey Manber, Chairman of the Board

A new commercial space market is poised to take off. And surprisingly, this market could not be more down-to-Earth: that of “farming” in space. This AgTech market will be an important part of helping decrease the debilitating impact of climate migration, which is already tearing up families and economies in Latin America, and one of the root causes of migration on our Southern border.

It may come as a surprise to learn that decades of research funded by space agencies world-wide have provided tantalizing evidence that the harsh environment of space, with high radiation levels and extreme temperature swings that cause stress on a genetic level, can produce bacteria and microbes, or grow seedlings, more quickly than on Earth. It seems that the combination of the cocktail of radiation present in outer space and the microgravity of space, combine to yield unique biomass products.

The challenges in food security caused by climate change are real and measurable. The agricultural regions of the earth are growing less fertile and more alien for the farmers who toil the land. It is estimated by the New York Times that today 1% of the world is considered a ‘barely livable hot zone.’ By 2070, that portion may rise to 19%. One in five. Think about that.

From an increasingly fragile food chain for nations in the Middle East, South America and southern Africa, to the documented horrific impact of the migration of failed farmers and their families to cities in North America, it is clear that we must utilize all tools possible today to sustain and support regional food security. And that includes space research.  

Until now, the possible use of space research to propel terrestrial Ag-Tech innovation has been largely overlooked. Space agencies, from NASA to those of Japan, Russia and Europe, have primarily focused on the means to produce food for tomorrow’s space explorers and settlers on the Moon and Mars. Orbiting greenhouses and Mars farms have grabbed the headlines. Yet, as one writer recently wrote, “every day, Earth looks a little more desolate, a little more like Mars.”

But one group of space ‘farming’ researchers has been looking “Earthward.” Two years ago, on a visit to better understand the upcoming Chinese space station, my host unexpectedly introduced me to a Chinese research team working on recoverable satellites. The researchers had taken differing strains of extremophiles, (hardy organisms that survive in harsh climates) and grown them in the toxic space environment. Many died. But some survived. The concept was based on ample evidence showing that genetic mutations do occur in high-radiation environments.

These researchers focused on producing strains which were both drought and saline resistant. Other space researchers around the world have done the same. But what happened next really caught my attention: The space-produced microbes and seedlings were then planted in a barren stretch of Chinese desert, and some thrived far better than their Earth equivalents. I came away intrigued and spent weeks reading dozens of scientific papers. The conclusion was that genetic mutations for space grown biomass does occur at higher rates, and there was something happening that remains difficult to replicate on the Earth. An exact science? No. One worth pursuing? Yes.  

This week, we announced at Nanoracks the first steps in creating an international team of commercial space researchers to tackle the challenge of mitigating the impact of climate change on our planet. The team, to be located in both Houston and Abu Dhabi, will be the first dedicated commercial research team focused exclusively on using the space environment for producing hardier agricultural products and more efficient autonomous harvesting techniques. Our first partner is the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO), which is focused on assuring greater food security for both the UAE and the MENA region as a whole. Food security continues to make headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic as we soberly observe the fragility of the international food chain.

But I know we in the space industry are capable of helping.

The past decade has seen a number of once solely government space programs become more commercial, from launch vehicles to satellites operators. The time is right. NASA has a proud history on the hardware side of farming innovation. It was NASA Kennedy Space Center researchers who developed the first vertical, closed loop farming systems, focused on interplanetary applications. NASA continued on to develop LED lighting so critical to vertical farming, from traditional crops to cannabis, both of which have evolved into multi-billion dollar Earth-based markets.

At first, Nanoracks will utilize the International Space Station, of which we are already the largest commercial user, to undertake the initial AgTech experiments and production. We plan to use all orbiting opportunities, from recoverable satellites to one day, yes, our own orbiting greenhouses.

I’m confident that this is the right moment to more fully integrate—and accelerate—both NASA and commercial agricultural space research into the next great challenge we must confront as a species: mitigating climate change. One day, humanity may grow healthy crops on Mars, but right now, another planet demands our more immediate attention.

Bishop Airlock Greenhouse

A rendering of greenhouses mounted externally to the Nanoracks Bishop Airlock on the International Space Station. Credit: Nanoracks / Mack Crawford

About Nanoracks

Nanoracks LLC, an XO Markets company, is the world’s leading provider of commercial space services. Nanoracks believes commercial space utilization will enable innovation through in-space manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, fiber optics – and more, allow for revolutionary Earth observation, and make space a key player in finding the solution to Earth’s problems.

Today, the company offers low-cost, high-quality solutions to the most pressing needs for satellite deployment, basic and educational research, and more – in over 30 nations worldwide. Nanoracks’ future goals are focused on the re-purposing of the upper stages of launch vehicles in-space and converting these structures into commercial habitats, both humanly and robotically tended, throughout the solar system.

XO Markets, the world’s first commercial space holding company, includes Nanoracks LLC, Nanoracks UAE, and wholly owned subsidiaries DreamUp and Nanoracks Space Outpost Europe (Nanoracks-Europe).

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