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Potato and Human Exploration of Space: Some Observations from NASA-Sponsored Controlled Environment Studies

Abstract

Future space exploration by humans will require reliable supplies of food, oxygen and clean water to sustain the expeditions. Potato is one of several crops being studied for such a “life support” role. Tests sponsored by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) confirmed the well-known short day tendencies for tuberisation, but also revealed that some cvs. (e.g., Norland, Denali and Russet Burbank) could tuberise well under continuous high light. Horticultural tests showed that plants grew well and tuberised readily using a nutrient film technique (NFT). CO2 enrichment studies with potato showed typical C3 responses in photosynthesis and yield, with maximum rates occurring near 1000 μmol mol−1. The highest tuber yields from these controlled environment studies reached 19.7 kg FM m−2 or equivalent to nearly 200 t ha−1. This equated to a productivity of 38 g m−2 DM m−2 day−1. Stand evapotranspiration (ET) rates ranged from 3.4 to 5.2 l m−2 day−1 throughout growth, while maximum ET rates for canopies could approach 10 l m−2 day−1. Harvest indices (tuber DM/total DM) typically ranged from 0.7 to 0.8, indicating that waste (inedible) biomass from potato would be less than that from many other crops. An experiment was conducted in 1995 on NASA’s Space Shuttle using excised potato leaves to study tuber formation at axillary buds during spaceflight. The results showed that tubers formed equally well in space as in the ground controls, indicating that reduced gravity should not be an impediment to tuberisation.

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Wheeler, R.M. Potato and Human Exploration of Space: Some Observations from NASA-Sponsored Controlled Environment Studies. Potato Research 49, 67–90 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11540-006-9003-4

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Keywords

  • Tuber
  • Yield
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • CO2
  • Photoperiod
  • Hydroponics
  • Photosynthesis
  • Transpiration