Lettuce Go to Space!

Introduction: Lettuce Go to Space!

About: I like anything to do with RC, Model Rocketry, and Crafts! Follow me for fun things to do in your free time!

Some friends and I came across this challenge while searching for a final project for our High School Senior year Humanitarian Design class. We have spent the past two months, designing, planning, and re-designing our methodology for growing lettuce in a zero-gravity environment.
Designing for growth in microgravity presents many unique challenges not present when designing for growth on Earth. We took into many factors, such as space-efficiency, ventilation, lighting, and hydration. The most prominent feature of our design is a set of screw-shafts controlled by a Raspberry Pi 4B+, allowing us to overlap the foliage of different plants in order to be more space-efficient. Additionally, we set up our Pi with humidity and temperature sensors, and a 7” touchscreen GUI, so that the internal conditions of the setup could be monitored without disturbing the equilibrium. If you enjoy this guide, please consider voting for our design!

Step 1: Brainstorming Phase

About a month was spent coming up with designs for our project. During this time, we were able to identify several potential problems that our design needed to deal with.


  • Soil - In microgravity environments, there is nothing holding soil into its container, so dirt particles may float away and cause disturbances.
  • Lack of gravity - On Earth, many seedlings will grow in the opposite direction to gravity before they have broken the surface of the soil because they don’t have a reference frame of light. In microgravity, germinated seeds don’t have this gravitational reference frame.
  • Hydration - Plants require water to grow. In microgravity, water tends to ball up due to surface tension, meaning that it is harder to get plants to absorb it.
  • Nitrogenation - Seedlings don’t only require water to grow; they also require many other nutrients, primarily including nitrates.
  • Airflow - During photosynthesis, plants pull carbon dioxide out of the air to create glucose. Airflow is necessary because of this since air needs to be displaced for the plants to have access to new carbon.
  • Space - Nasa imposed a size constraint: our design had to fit within a cube with 50cm side lengths.

Step 2: Preliminary Designs

We drew up two main design iterations changing everything from the shape of the housing to the type of pump used in the irrigation system.
1st design: Our initial design was spherical in shape to maximize the space given. Initially, we planned to embed electronics and irrigation systems inside the walls of the sphere. Plants were placed along the wall with a light source in the middle causing the plants to grow inward. We hoped that this would maximize the growing space each plant had access to.

Problems:

  • As the plants grew larger, they choked each other’s line of sight to the light source, resulting in the death of smaller plants.
  • The spherical design was extremely hard to create prototypes of, and we suspected that the reward would not be worth the opportunity cost of creation.

2nd design: The second iteration of our design our first concept to include a screw drive. Because we realized that the plants would tend to choke out each other’s light as they grew, we decided to use a screw drive to lower the plants as they grew to give them more space as they needed it. We created a system of drives that lowered a platform of twelve plants. Because our design needed only 25cm of vertical space, we realized that we could stack the design on top of itself to accommodate twenty-four plants. In addition to improving our space utilization, we also changed our gear pumps to peristaltic pumps in order to increase the efficiency in a zero-gravity environment. Problems:

  • Some plants grew at different rates, which resulted in continued light choking.

Step 3: Final Design

For our final design, we further iterated our screw-drive design. Instead of utilizing a single screw drive, we created several cups that could be raised and lowered independently of one another. This allowed us to write code via our Raspberry Pi to ensure that the plants wouldn’t interfere with each other. This design optimized our plants’ growth because cups with small plants were able to grow near the light source, and as they grew they were allowed more space via a lowering of their cup.

Step 4: Seed Container

We designed our seed cups to be used with silica gel beads. The gels were hyper-absorbent, and the plants’ root systems were able to draw water from the beads, meaning that there was no loose water in our system. In addition, we inserted nutrients into the pump system which were then absorbed by the beads, meaning that the plants could draw their nutrients directly from them. A net wraps around the top only allowing the plant to get through and not the silica gel beads.

Step 5: Walls

We created our container with carbon fiber, with acrylic windows in our prototype allowing easy visual feedback. Because we want to cut out light pollution in the final design in order to accurately track the plants’ growth given a light source, the acrylics would be removed in a working model.

Step 6: Irrigation

We provided water to our plants via a peristaltic pump positioned on the interior of the growing chamber. We ran tubing from the pump to each cup in the system, as well as to a reservoir. Inside each cup, tubing was perforated in order to dispense the nutrient-rich water which was then instantly absorbed by the silica beads.

Step 7: Lighting

We provided light to our plants with variable-intensity RGB lights. This allows for experiments to be run on the efficiency of different light intensities across different color spectra.

Step 8: Airflow

We provided airflow to our system via four small fans on each side of the box, each moving eight liters of air per minute, resulting in a total airflow of sixty-four liters of air per minute.

Step 9: Future Considerations

  • We would like to have each cup individually controlled by a single motor, rather than grouped via shaft. We designed our model as such, but due to budget restrictions, we were not able to create a working prototype in this manner.
  • We would like to improve our germination system. As currently designed, our system requires each seed to be manually inserted into its chamber.
  • We would like to automate this process in the future. We would like to automate our harvesting system. Similar to the germination process, harvesting plants is currently a completely manual process; we would like to automate this too in the future.
  • We would like to add a camera system via the Raspberry Pi. Since the Pi has such good native support for cheap, high-resolution cameras at a low framerate, we would like to implement this into our design. It would remove the light-pollution issue from our prototype while still allowing for easy monitoring of the interior.

We hope you enjoyed our design; if you did, please consider voting for us!

Growing Beyond Earth Maker Contest

Third Prize in the
Growing Beyond Earth Maker Contest

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    13 Comments

    0
    gmikles1
    gmikles1

    1 year ago

    Hey, I just wanted to check in on your project. I was very happy to see you were chosen to move on to the second round. I'm sure the pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into your plans but I hope you have planned a way to continue the project. Good luck on the build and I hope you get the growth you're looking forward to in your lettuce.
    Stay well and healthy. Best of luck to you.

    Garth

    0
    trailogy
    trailogy

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thank you for those kind words! Unfortunately, we have had to stop the build of our design and we are trying to find a way to make this work. I hope you are doing well.
    - Trail

    0
    gmikles1
    gmikles1

    Reply 1 year ago

    You're very welcome and if you don't mind my asking though. I am curious if you are unable to continue because you are:
    A. The contest was cancelled?
    B. The contest was delayed until a time that you or your team can no longer participate?
    C. You or your team will lose your builder space or equipment needed to continue?
    D. Another alternative ending I haven't listed?

    0
    wannabemadsci
    wannabemadsci

    1 year ago

    Congratulations on being selected as a finalist in the Growing Beyond Earth Maker Contest!
    Thanks for sharing your Instructable! Good Luck!

    0
    trailogy
    trailogy

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thank you so much!

    0
    gmikles1
    gmikles1

    1 year ago

    Nice work and great presentation! Good luck and I certainly hope you get to move on to Phase 2.

    0
    trailogy
    trailogy

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thank you!

    0
    jackosaurue
    jackosaurue

    1 year ago

    this is just too swag my dawg!

    0
    trailogy
    trailogy

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thanks!

    0
    acarp1
    acarp1

    1 year ago

    This is absolutely the best thought-out design I have seen yet. You designed your own plant-holders, and the way that you can adjust heights to compensate for light intensity and shading of other plants is ingenious. Light intensity can be a key to healthy growth, and your use of proximity sensors along with the screw drive to raise/lower the plants is right-on. Your design also allows for flexibility in the adding of up to 12 individual screw drive motors as well as a monitoring system--critical for NASA to be able to monitor growth, water use, nutrient levels etc. The camera system would be a great easy addition for you as well.

    0
    trailogy
    trailogy

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thank you!

    0
    Gadisha
    Gadisha

    1 year ago

    Nice, I had a similar idea, but different; with one big moving (up and down) platform in the middle of the cube.
    Because of the zero-G environment, on either side of the platform there would be plants growing, but in an opposite direction, so facing up at the upper side and down on the other side.
    On both the bottom and the ceiling there would be lights.
    The plants on, say, the upper side would be sown first, the position of the platform would be very close to the lights at this point, once the plants would start developing, the platform would be moving further down.
    Then the seeds at the bottom of the platform would be sown.
    Once the platform would be all the way down the upper plants could be harvested and the ones on the bottom would start sprouting.
    Off course irrigation should be automated, maybe the soil should be gel-like (or infused with a gel like substance so there would be no risk of water floating around)
    This would save space and time (LOL).
    Too bad only US citizens are allowed to enter te competition...

    Anyway, I like your idea best so far and I will vote for you!
    Good luck :)

    0
    trailogy
    trailogy

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thank you for your vote!