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Scientists dine out on Mars mission menu options with ag technology

The University of Southern Queensland has been awarded an Australian Space Agency grant to develop machine vision software to detect early stress in plants being grown onboard space flights.

The very first American astronaut NASA sent to space had a diet that consisted mainly of applesauce consumed from a tube.

Now University of Southern Queensland scientists from the Centre for Agricultural Engineering are doing their bit to extend fresh food options for NASA astronauts on missions from the moon to Mars.

The team from the Centre for Agricultural Engineering including Professor Craig Baillie, Dr Cheryl McCarthy, Dr Jacob Humpal and Professor Peter Brett has successfully been awarded a Moon to Mars Demonstrator Feasibility Grant through the Australian Space Agency to develop launch-ready software that will use machine vision to detect early stress in plants being grown onboard space flights.

“Space crew members need basic nutrients to successfully support long flight or deep space missions such as those planned for Mars,” Professor Baillie said.

“Astronauts are currently supported nutritionally through food resupply missions, which have been used on all manned missions, but this can be difficult to maintain on deep space assignments.

“Our research project will develop machine vision-based technology to automatically interpret plant stress signals so fresh vegetables and other leafy greens grown at NASA’s two Veggie units and the larger Advanced Plant Habitat currently onboard the International Space Station (ISS) can be better monitored for increased food safety, and food options.”

Professor Peter Brett said the software, including machine vision sensors for plant monitoring, will be developed during laboratory experiments for plant stress and established with collaborators from NASA and partner organisations.

“We will be developing monitoring algorithms to complement current sensing approaches used by NASA for advancing the development of sustainable plant-based food production in space,” Professor Brett said.

“Robotic vision systems will be developed for plant stress monitoring that will require minimal to no crew interaction, with the intention of being deployed in
prototype plant habitat payloads on space flights during the mission phase.

“This project will also produce a larger ground-based laboratory in parallel with the launch-ready system, enabling the investigation of Space Agriculture Systems for deployment to planetary surfaces in the future.

“It’s incredibly exciting work to be part of and a great opportunity to work with colleagues from NASA. This work will build on an established track record USQ has in the development of new machine vision algorithms for plant monitoring in broad acre cropping environments and at remote farm locations.”

The “Early plant stress detection using machine vision for food safety in space” project runs for 12 months.

Four people standing in field
Dr Cheryl McCarthy, Professor Peter Brett, Professor Craig Baillie and Dr Jacob Humpal