Mars_Space Ag_Presentation_People (1)

Source: Artist impression by Bruce Moffett for the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space

UK vertical farming technology business Vertical Future is developing a fully autonomous growing facility that will be used in the first commercial space station, due in orbit in 2026.

The company’s proposal – an adaptation of its controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) systems, which have been deployed around the world to produce leafy greens and pharmaceuticals – was exclusively selected by the UK Space Agency and awarded a grant of £1.5m.

The system will be sent into orbit aboard the Axiom Station – the successor to the International Space Station – being constructed by privately funded US space infrastructure developer Axiom Space.

“The further we go into space, the more we will need to produce while we’re there, be it food, biomaterials, or medicines,” said Dr Jen Bromley, chief scientific officer and autonomous agriculture project lead at Vertical Future. “Plants are able to be the biofactories to cover all of these needs. The ability to reliably grow off-Earth is not yet realised as the technologies to achieve this haven’t yet been implemented away from Earth at the scale required to sustain life.”

Bromley added that among the technologies being put to a true test in orbit would be “sensor development critical to delivering an autonomous growing environment and enabling fine-tuning of parameters that cannot be tested outside of a micro-gravity environment”.

The technologies proven in the work “will look beyond the initial low Earth orbit plans and expand into the 2030s as a key enabler for Mars missions” the company said.

The ultimate goal is for Vertical Future farms to feature on the Lunar Gateway (a planned space station that will orbit the moon), the moon’s surface, and, eventually, the Martian surface.

“This project embodies our commitment to improve life on Earth and foster the possibilities beyond it, building a home in space that benefits every human, everywhere,” said Jana Stoudemire, director, in-space manufacturing at Axiom Space.

“CEA systems address not only physiological benefits, but psychological benefits to crew health and can serve as biomanufacturing facilities as well. Autonomous agriculture systems support future commercial low Earth orbit destinations and enable exploration initiatives for lunar and Mars missions.

“As we go further in space exploration, the need for on-demand production is a critical component that presents an opportunity for the UK to lead in the development of technology, providing food and producing plants to develop medicine and materials to 3D print structures and tools that we can’t take with us but will need in these new environments,” she added.

Vertical Future said the technologies refined in the space mission would have terrestrial benefits too. It pointed to the more than 30,000 commercial applications of space technology that have entered the consumer market since the 1950s, among them scratch-resistant lenses, the computer mouse, ear thermometers, smoke detectors, cordless tools and memory foam.

“Technologies developed and enhanced in this project will improve controlled-environment agriculture productivity and operational efficiency,” the company said. “Vertical Future is in a position to deploy these immediately on Earth where climatic shocks and international unrest impact food supply, while geographical factors prevent the production of various staple foods nationally.” 

Founded in 2016, London-based Vertical Future has received 12 Innovate UK grants, and operates with a team of around 60 staff. The company has raised over £37m of funding to date.