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New stretchable sensors could help grow plants in space

Scientists have developed sensors that can monitor and transmit plant growth information without human intervention

The new study looks into how wearable printed electronics could be used to make farming possible in space
The new study looks into how wearable printed electronics could be used to make farming possible in space (Pexels)

In the popular 2015 film The Martian, Matt Damon’s character grows potatoes on Mars. It got people talking about space farming and its possibilities. Now, a new study brings scientists a step closer to growing plants in space.

Scientists, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have developed highly stretchable sensors that can monitor and transmit plant growth information without human intervention.

Also read: Nasa is testing a new approach to grow plants in space

The polymer sensors are resistant to humidity and temperature, and can stretch more than 400% while being attached to a growing plant as it grows, the university’s press statement explains. The sensors can send a wireless signal to a remote monitoring location.

The study, funded by a grant from US space agency Nasa, looks into how wearable printed electronics could be used to make farming possible in space. One of the most important requirements on long space missions is food availability, the statement adds. If astronauts are able to grow vegetables sustainably while on space missions, it could be a giant leap.

Over three years, the team developed Stretchable-Polymer-Electronics-based Autonomous Remote Strain Sensor – or SPEARS2 – which the scientists refer to as “an exciting technical advance in our ability to perform precise, noninvasive measurements of plant growth in real-time.”

In the study, the scientists used plants such as corn that grow primarily upward. However, they plan on improving their electronics printing methodology to create a system that can monitor upward and outward growth, the statement adds.

Although there have been rapid advancements in wearable technology, plants are often ignored, study author Ying Diao explains in the statement. 

“We know that they are experiencing a lot of stress during climate adaptation, and I think soft electronics can play a bigger role in advancing our understanding so we can ensure that plants are healthy, happy and sustainable in the future – whether that is in space, on other planets or right here on Earth,” he adds.

Over the years, Nasa has consistently experimented with growing plants in space. For instance, the Vegetable Production System, known as Veggie, is a space garden on-board the International Space Station. Veggie was built to help study plant growth in microgravity and make fresh food available for astronauts, Nasa's website explains.

Also read: Scientists will send microbes to space to observe their growth

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