Canada Home to State of the Art Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility

Productivity data collected in controlled environment chambers, such as this chamber containing soybeans, are used to determine crop production ESM (Equivalent System Mass). Credit: University of Guelph.

While Canada’s robot arms do their work in orbit, Canadian researchers on the ground are developing cutting edge deep space life support systems.

The University of Guelph in Ontario has opened a brand new Controlled Environment Systems (CES) research facility that will eventually contain 14 hypobaric (reduced pressure) chambers. The chambers – the first of which was opened last week – will allow researchers to study the use of plants in supporting human life during long-term space missions.

“We’re going to Mars in the next 20 years,” said project leader Dr. Mike Dixon, a plant agriculturist who has been studying how to sustain life in space for more than 15 years. This facility will allow the university to promote new and emerging technologies and participate in partnerships exploring space technology.”

Currently, space vehicles are able to carry just enough air, food and water to keep crews alive for short missions. But during long space missions, the needs of the crew can be met only through renewable life-support systems based on plants and microorganisms. Plants are the most efficient means of sustaining life in space. They provide food, and add oxygen to the atmosphere by removing carbon dioxide and eliminating polluting by-products. They also provide water and help to recycle waste.

Controlled environment chambers like this one allow researchers to vary atmospheric conditions. This allows them to determine the minimum requirements for plant growth and also how to maximize plant output under those circumstances. Credit: University of Guelph.

According to Dixon, CES supporters have been working to establish the facility since 1995. Funding for the $7.9 million public-private project came from several sources, including the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Ontario Innovation Trust (OIT), the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the Centre for Research in Earth and Space Technology (CRESTech – an Ontario Centre of Excellence), and numerous private companies.

“Our industrial supporters are legion,” Dixon said, noting the greenhouse industry is particularly keen to fund agricultural and horticultural research. Studies in plant productivity, sensor development and nutrients will help producers and farmers grow higher yield plants more efficiently.

The facility also provides a hi-touch angle for the high-tech concepts of space research. Everyone is familiar and comfortable with plants – even children. Indeed, some 3000 classrooms of elementary school students are helping with the CES “Tomatosphere” study, a participatory research project for grades three to six. These “tomatonauts” are planting seeds that flew with Marc Garneau for 11 days on STS-97, and they will be comparing the adult plants with tomatoes grown from seeds that stayed on Earth.

“The astronaut that will plant seeds on Mars is in grade three right now,” Dixon says. “We’re out there encouraging and recruiting whenever we can.”

Nearly forty other studies are in progress at CES, including work in molecular plant-microbe interactions, plant physiology, detection and management of pathogens and allelochemicals, and biofiltration.

Representatives from several international space agencies attended the building’s opening last week, and held meetings in Guelph to discuss the future of advanced life-support research. They included the Canadian Space Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, European Space Agency and the National Space Development Agency of Japan.

CES supporters are excited about the potential of the facility. “We believe that to choose our future, we must lead the way,” said University of Guelph president Mordechai Rozanski. “This unique facility definitely puts us at the forefront of the frontiers of science. It also allows us to foster collaborative interactions among European, American and Canadian specialists, helping us create and transfer new knowledge.”

David Strangway, president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, agrees. “The launch of this new facility is a vibrant example of what the CFI was created to accomplish by strengthening our capacity to innovate. It will give a tremendous boost to the global leadership of the University of Guelph, of Ontario, and ultimately, of Canada.”

MDA

About Chandra Clarke