Salad Machines in Space

During one of my searches for ‘nanoscale’ images I came across the usual computer generated and airbrushed SciFi imagery of nanotechnology illustration. Normally I just note them, grin and continue my search for STM images. But the caption under the above image actually made me stop.

‘Computer artwork of a kogin spacebloom, part of a fictional 23rd-century range of edible space flora (xflora). Spaceblooms combine nanotechnology and biotechnology. Several metres in diameter, they drift or move through space, feeding, growing, reproducing, and being harvested for food and other products. Kogin moves by newclear power.’

Wow. That was one step beyond – and one refreshing bit more entertaining (as an avid SciFi reader, I’m a bit spoiled when it comes to visions of the future…).
Of course I immediately had to look two things up: one was the book these images had come from and the other one was whether people were actually working on ‘edible space flora’ (or fauna – think ‘pigs in space’…) – since reading the White House’s pages on space colonisation I wouldn’t put anything past NASA (where has the page gone?). Of course, my suspicion was confirmed: NASA is working on ‘space flora’ – in conjunction with Mars terra-forming (for future US explorers).

A ‘proposed mission’ could test these plants on Mars within 2007 (er, that’s this year). And, of course, the idea if we can use Mars as a preservation habitat for threatened Earth species is not far, not to mention the ‘resources in space’ question that appears on the Foresight Institute for Nanotechnology’s pages…

There is another strand of ‘space flora’ that is under development: plants that can be taken on space travels to feed astronauts and keep them happy: initial trials have found that ‘Space age gardening’ with the help of ’salad machines’ have ‘psychological benefits’. According to this article, ‘foreseeable advances in biotech and nanotech’ would even permit researchers ‘to alter plants’ genes so that their cells produce little molecular sensors, transmitters, and receivers. These would monitor the plants internally and report on their health to ensure a good crop, and could even make the plants controllable, sprouting and flowering on cue.’ Other ideas are to make the plants produce protective chemicals against radiation in space or new planets or using ‘nanotech devices in the plants’ cells’ to ‘deliver light directly to the cell parts that perform photosynthesis, making the plants more efficient.’ Apparently, ‘we can’t quite do it now, but nothing we are considering is against the laws of physics or chemistry or nature.’ Somebody isn’t exactly lacking confidence here… At the moment, as a humble Earth creature, you can actually be part of this plant project. There is the BioBLAST® Plant Production Simulator, NASA’s ’Farming In Space’ youth quest or the Whitehouse’sMars Millennium Project for kids.

The Guardian reports on a more sober issue of ‘space farming’: using sensors in space to monitor our fields. The article tells us that ‘it is easier for a satellite in space to see whether a crop needs watering than for a farmer on the ground’. One of the developers of the technology envisions the future of farming as ‘The satellite images show what is needed and a robot fixes it.’ As an afterthought he adds that ‘here will need to be some cultural changes, though. It’s hard to separate a farmer from his wellies.’ Well, no need to separate farmers from wellies, when the robot is out and about ‘fixing’ crops, the farmer can do whatever he or she likes!

After this futuristic take on the use of nano and biotech, I wondered what the ‘Spacebloom’ project had in store. I was not disappointed. ‘Spacebloom : A Field Guide to Cosmic Xflora’ starts with a SciFi timeline, continues with detailed descriptions of 23rd century ‘Xflora’ descriptions and even supplies recipes! As one reviewer remarks, this all seems a bit silly, but Martin Naroznik, the creator of the flying nutrients (some of which even ‘bite back’) counters with something (perhaps) surprisingly ‘unsilly’. In an article in Wired Magazine on NASA’s interest in his work, a NASA spokesperson remarks, that his work may be inspiring for future generations, yet maybe not conservative enough. Naroznik comments: ‘In our collective imagination, when we think of space, we always have huge space ships and weapons. Why not have something we can go out and collect, and come home and make pie?’


5 thoughts on “Salad Machines in Space

  1. wow, interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing this. I find it amazing that you have time to locate all this material!

    This is more a general comment than one about the actual imagery, but I find that the science fictional narratives around nano and biotech are getting out of control! I have to say that in some ways, sci-fi allows for what Donna Haraway would consider a kind of opening up of possibilities to go against naturalized or dominant discourses about science (and in this case nanotechnology) and yet I seem to find the same stories and metaphors being rehearsed time and again.

    I find it so interesting that the gap between what is actually possible now versus what is being imagined through these sci-fi images is so incredibly wide. Most of the scientists scoff when I show them these types of images and I find it fascinating that what has taken hold within certain public imaginaries of nanotechnology are the science fictional life-saving nano robots or futuristic technologies that will solve our water, energy and food problems. In my field work so far, what the scientists are actually doing in practice is in some ways quite boring and nothing near the mainstream nano images we see.

    But hey, there’s no harm in imagining the surreal or the hyper-real – more food for thought or should I say salad?? Will be back with more thoughts soon…

  2. Since you ae a sci fi fan, as I am, then you must subscribe to the sci fi writer’s premise of, “if you can imagine it, it can and will be built.”
    Whether that’s desireable or not remains to be seen. I just wrote Dr. Merkle ( the following;

    I have great appreciation for your continuing thoughtful analyses of nanotechnology issues, and the future.
    I do worry, however, about the need for Asimov-inspired nano-laws of technology (Three laws of Robotics) to prevent an errant construct (Replicators of Star Gate fame?) from eating their way through modern society.
    The same cautions have been discussed in the biotech world of genetic modification and genetic treatment, using a virus, for instance as a vector for causing change.
    Let’s hope the genetic imperative of competition between humans doesn’t lead to a “need for speed” in the competitive sense that is so great as to overcome necessary caution.
    I hope that you will use your good offices to promote a perspective of abundant caution in the design and employment of new technologies of whatever type.
    I am by far not a Luddite in technology, but having seen the effects of misused technology, and the continuing manifestation of results , many not even yet observed, I am worried.

    I offer the comments for your consideration as well.
    Technology of any type offers great promise and great risk, when or if misused, as it sometimes has been.

    THe Chinese ideogram for reward combines risk and opportunity.
    As does nanotechnology.


    Barry W. Dennis
    Woodstock, Maryland

  3. Pingback: Spaceblooms: Is Future of Farming in Outer Space? « Hot

  4. Pingback: Spaceblooms: Is Future of Farming in Outer Space? |

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