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Large-scale space farming is preparing for lift-off thanks to the development of a new facility that will enable plant growth on the International Space Station (ISS). But are space farming pioneers ready to reap the commercial rewards?

Plant growth chambers, such as NASA’s ‘Veggie’, have already demonstrated the potential for crop cultivation in outer space. Led by Vertical Future, the new facility will have autonomous systems for remote or AI-controlled operation and aims to make large-scale crop cultivation commercially viable. However, financial, gravitational and jurisdictional challenges will have to be overcome.

Space farming could bring enormous benefits for humankind on Earth and in space. The ability to grow a continuous source of food in space could facilitate longer-term space exploration programmes and increase understanding of the effects of zero-gravity conditions on plant biology.

Space farming could also increase food security on Earth. Tried and tested in space, developments in hydroponics and vertical farming could boost urban agriculture in areas where there is limited scope for large-scale crop cultivation. Global population increases mean innovative agricultural technologies are needed to support a more sustainable, reliable and affordable means of food production. Space farming is also an opportunity to further intercropping practices in order to optimise yields.

Recent space farming innovations include NASA’s patented passive nutrient delivery system for self-watering crops in 1G and microgravity conditions. The system features a contained area for plant growth substrate and a reservoir for water and/or plant nutrient solutions. A wicking material transports the water or nutrient solutions to the system’s removable rooting module. Permeable windows in the system’s walls ensure adequate aeration to support plant growth.

Researchers at the University of Illinois in collaboration with NASA have developed a patent pending stretchy sensor that can be attached to plants to track their growth. The technology offers a more reliable means of tracking, as it grows with the plant and is less likely to become detached. It is also less bulky than the arrangement of cameras and sensors in Veggie’s growth chambers.

Read more: UK tech firm Vertical Future targets space farm orbit in 2026

Whilst space farming could bring significant benefits for human civilisations on Earth and in space, several challenges will need to be overcome. For example, there is the problem of irrigating crops in a zero-gravity environment. One potential solution is a closed-loop system, which uses a substrate or sponge to hold the water close to the plant roots. However, such systems are complex and sensitive to changes, so more research is needed to find a permanent solution.

Launching equipment and crop seed into space is costly, of course. Grant funding can be hard to secure, so private capital will be needed to get initiatives off the ground. On the way to commercial viability, companies should aim for a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach – bringing together research scientists, engineers, lawyers, investors and biologists.

Innovators should also seek advice about protecting their innovations in space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty indicates that an object launched into space will remain under the jurisdiction of the state in which it is registered. It can therefore be assumed that any inventions made, used or sold in space will be subject to the patent law of that same jurisdiction. However, a lack of case law makes it more important for innovators to know the patent landscape and take steps to avoid infringing a third party’s IP rights.

As the space farming industry evolves, innovative tech companies will have an opportunity to reap the commercial rewards, but significant technological and IP-related challenges lie ahead.