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?’