Policy Update – NASA Releases Early Career Solicitation Towards Plant/Food Production Technologies

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Space Technology Mission Directorate released a NASA Research Announcement (NRA) titled “Space Technology Research, Development, Demonstration, and Infusion-2020 (SpaceTech-REDDI-2020).”  The purpose of an NRA is to address future technological challenges of the aerospace enterprise that encourage economic growth and space research objectives.  Included in this specific solicitation are several topics of interest to the plant science community, including “Advanced Plant/Food Production Technologies for Space Exploration.”  Specifically, the goal of the advanced plant and food technology topic is to grow plants as a source of food for space exploration missions.

With momentum growing towards a future crewed mission to Mars, a new approach towards food stability and supply must be addressed.  Current food supplies are fit for international space station (ISS) missions, but additional research is required to sustain crews on longer missions, including a possible lunar excursion.  NASA seeks to grow plants “on-site” and hopes to provide adequate nutrition through fresh foods which would benefit the health of astronauts on the mission and contribute to plant science research.  While “some leafy vegetables have been grown on the ISS and the Russian Mir Space Station”, the current plant chamber infrastructure is limited in size and capabilities.  As a result, NASA seeks to find the most suitable crops for space travel (such as fruiting plants) and innovate new capabilities to grow and sustain crops for a long-duration mission.

Several research areas of interest are highlighted, including:

  • Selection, breeding, or genetic engineering of dwarf or short stature crops with a high harvest index (ratio of edible to total biomass) for food production systems in space. These could include, but are not limited to, vegetables, legumes, grains, tuberous crops, fruiting crops, and even dwarf fruit trees and brambles with little or no dormancy requirements for flowering. The desired outcome would be high value, productive crop(s) / genotype(s) that could be used for future space missions.
  • Improved photosynthetic efficiencies, which include genetic modification and horticultural improvements for light capture, more efficient energy conversion of light, efficient crop canopy architectures, and improved carbon capture and conversion, for lunar, Martian and deep space environments.
  • Advanced methods for remotely sensing the status of plants in controlled environments of space to assess their overall health, growth, performance, and plant stress. Example methods include hyperspectral sensing of crops, the use of bio-indicators in the crops themselves, or sensing of volatile compounds that provide information on crop growth and development.
  • Identification and use of beneficial microbes or microbial consortia for increasing crop growth, yield, improve food safety, and resilience to stress. The beneficial effects of candidate organisms or microbial consortia should be validated with crops in controlled environment settings.

Awards can be up to $200,000 per year for up to three years.  Notices of intent are strongly encouraged and should be submitted by February 26, 2020, with full proposals due by March 25, 2020.

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