Mission to mars

Plant growers can learn from space travel

What do tomato growers and astronauts have in common? “They must both recycle their raw materials”. This is at least what space researcher Angelo Vermeulen suggests.

Originally published in "Het AD" - ad.nl

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According to Vermeulen, “it might take 50 or 500 years, but we will soon be living in space permanently”. Assuming this to be correct, the Belgian biologist has for a while now been asking the question: how can we live there?

Answering simply to what is a complicated question, he claims that “it is necessary to develop a fully closed system in which people can be self-sustainable”. “It is simply not possible to take everything with you into space, so what you do bring, has to be recycled”.

According to Vermeulen, this method of working in space is exactly how we should work on earth and in horticulture. “When you consider every form of waste as new raw material, you are helping to combat climate change”, he explains. The researcher will deliver an inspiring lecture series next week entitled ‘Mission to Mars’. During seven free interactive workshops, open to the public, the recurring theme will be what horticulture can learn from space travel.  


“The general answer to this question is hence ‘circular thinking’”, he says, summarising his lectures. We have spent years on the design of a circular programme, in which for example the astronaut’s toilet waste and perspiration are transformed into plant nutrition. These plants in turn supply oxygen and food for the astronaut.”

In the same way the horticulture sector must move towards a fully closed ecosystem, says Vermeulen. “Dirty water can be filtered and purified to serve as a raw material. Plant remains can be converted into nutrients for new plants and the sun used as a source of solar energy. In short, a greenhouse in which everything is recycled, nothing is lost and where there is little affect on the environment. Just like how we work in space”!

The aim of my lessons is to bridge the gap between science and daily practice

-  Angelo Vermeulen


If it was left to Vermeulen, such a greenhouse would exist in around twenty years. “The aim of my lessons is to bridge the gap between science and daily practice”. There are enough concepts to make a circular greenhouse, but in practice we are far from there. What do I mean by that? There is lack of knowledge and it still remains all too unclear”.

But is a closed ecosystem in the field of greenhouse horticulture really possible? How does the ecosystem work for example in generating warmth and energy? Solar panels let barely any light through, something which is necessary for the greenhouse. “Geothermal energy offers many possibilities in the short term. Transparent solar cells let through lots of light and so could also be the solution”, attests Vermeulen. “Research into this concept is still developing, but it is definitely within reach”.

One of the themes Vermeulen will cover in his lectures at the World Horti Centre is the use of water. “The reuse of water is perhaps most important in an environment such as Mars. You have to be very frugal with it, just like you would in a greenhouse. But water reclamation or the reuse of water is not yet the norm in greenhouse horticulture, even though there are a lot of greenhouses that recycle water. In the long term, there is the incentive for all gardeners to do this, because water for example will increasing serve as a cultivator”.

In the beginning it requires a lot of investment, but in the end this pays for itself

- Angelo Vermeulen

According to the biologist, there is no room for plant protection agents in the circular greenhouse. “It seems to me a bad plan to burden a new world, such as Mars, with toxic substances. In addition, chemical pesticides are prone to ending up in other places, such as in the water that seeps into the soil.  If you want to reuse the agents, you must first rid them of pesticides. The beauty of a concept like the circular greenhouse or circular greenhouse horticulture is that the horticulturist is forced to close the cycle as much as possible”.

Lastly, the gardener – just like an astronaut on Mars – should bear in mind the limited amount of space they have. Vermeulen: “This will become a part of the future of horticulture: the cultivation of crops in the city itself, resulting in a shorter supply chain. A direct comparison can be made here with the infrastructure that is needed on the moon or on Mars: optimal use of the limited space available and a high degree of control”.

But what does the gardener deliver in practice in such a closed ecosystem? “It is good for the environment, the removal of pesticides improves the quality of the product and ultimately it will have many economic advantages. Every form of waste is seen as a new raw material. Of course, in the beginning it requires a lot of investment, but in the end this pays for itself. A closed system – so one that isn’t dependent on outside influences, such as the weather – delivers above all certainty of harvest and fixed conditions for plants. For a gardener who wants business continuity and a stable income this is beneficial, and on a planet like Mars this is vital”.  


Vegetable breeder Rijk Zwaan has already, under the auspices of NASA, planted seeds in space. The research was carried out in order to see if the seeds could germinate and plants grow without dark matter. But are we really able to cultivate in space? Vermeulen: “Certainly, without a doubt. This is why it is good to make all our systems circular now”.

Watch his TED TALK "How to go to space, without having to go to space"

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The Greenport Hub organises: "Mission to Mars" – a series of 7 lectures, starting on Friday 19th January from 15:00 till 17:00 in the new World Horti Center. During the first lecture Dr. Angelo Vermeulen (Delft University of Technology) will link Space Research with Sustainable Horticulture. You can register online (for free) here.