Nuclear-powered LEDs could provide food for future space colonies

For the past few weeks, people who barely look at the moon have become temporarily obsessed with space exploration.

With the successful landing and deployment of the Mars Curiosity Rover, humanity has been treated to a sneak peek at the Red Planet for the first time. 

The possibility of establishing space colonies has been a scientists’ dream for decades, but working out a way to keep humans alive on the outside Earth’s protective shell has been a stumbling block.

The first step is figuring out how to create a constant flow of oxygen and food for early space settlers. Here on Earth, we rely on our unique atmosphere and the power of the sun to keep us breathing and plants growing. 

In space, we’d have to create these systems for ourselves. Experts now say that nuclear-powered LEDs could be key to building bio-regenerative systems that could keep us alive in off-Earth environments.

“With no atmosphere, the moon is regularly exposed to lethal doses of cosmic rays, solar coronal mass ejections and x-flares, not to mention micro-meteorites that would be enough to wreck anyone’s corn,” writes Forbes Bruce Dorminey. Instead, lunar residents will have to grown food either in sub-lunar lava tubes or in greenhouses shielded with several meters of special lunar surface insulation called regolith.

This will protect plants from external threats, but make it impossible to depend on sunlight for growing. According to researchers, the most practical solution is some sort of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), not unlike the one powering the current Mars Science lab, to power the LEDs that will spur photosynthesis in lunar greenhouses. 

According to Cary Mitchell, a plant biologist at Purdue University, LEDs would be cool, solid state and robust; lasting 50,000 hours at least, or some five times longer than conventional horticultural light sources.

In theory at least, this solves the problem of what early moon settlers will eat, but it doesn’t explain where water (the other essential ingredient for food growth) will come from. We’re eager to see what unique technology will emerge for creating and recycling that resource in space as well.

* Beth Buczynski, EarthTechling