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If you were to decide to live on a spaceship for the rest of your life, how would you farm?

  • You have access to the necessary farming materials; Dirt, plants; etcetera.
  • Ship is large enough to make room for farms, sufficient for ~20 people (Whatever means of farming you can come up with, the spaceship is eligible for)

But what would the most effective way to farm on board this spaceship be?

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    $\begingroup$ Very carefully. It would be a shame if anything were to happen to your dirt supply. Dirt is seriously complex, living, stuff, and I doubt you can have a closed food-waste-plant cycle without some form of it. $\endgroup$ – Dan Ross Mar 5 '17 at 23:30
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Farming in space is actually quite similar to farming on Earth, but with only a few differences.

In space, farming is usually done without the typical use of sunlight. I suppose you could use sunlight if you wanted to have a window to the sun in your farming room, but it would be much more likely that you would shine LEDs on the plants to deliver the appropriate amount of light. This constant light would enable plants to grow slightly more quickly than on Earth, where they have ~12 hours of darkness per day.

Plants also have a hard time growing in the correct direction in space because, on Earth, they use gravity to determine which direction is up and which direction is down. If you have a big enough spaceship, you could spin it to generate some gravity (you do not need one full g). Otherwise, you could do what they do on the ISS and place the seeds in "plant pillows" that encourage the plants to grow in the correct direction.

Once you solve those problems, now all you need are the standard things that plants need: soil, water, nutrients, etc.

EDIT: Upon doing some research in response to a comment, I have found that not all plants grow better in constant sunlight. Some plants need periods of darkness each day (the length of which varies from species to species) for optimal growth.

Sources: https://www.nasa.gov/content/veggie-plant-growth-system-activated-on-international-space-station

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    $\begingroup$ As far as I remember, plants needs some dark periods for their chemistry to work best,and for hormonal regulation. I can't find references now, but if I can tell, most crops needs an hour or two of darkness. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Mar 6 '17 at 20:31
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If you are living permanently on a spaceship, do you have gravity?

There could be spin sections to provide a stable deck. At the large end, perhaps an O'Neill cylinder. Many fictional settings have some sort of artificial gravity. Completely against physics as we know it.

Soil or hydroponics?

It is possible to grow plants without soil, like hydroponics or aeroponics. Using that saves mass, which will be important for space travel.

Any livestock?

A farm could include rabbit hutches, or fish tanks. Or the spacers look for a balanced vegetarian diet.

What about waste?

A closed ecological system could provide air in addition to food, and take care of biological waste.

So the farm on the ship could be much like one on Earth, if you want it that way and if the designers have payload to waste. More likely, it will be an industrial-looking food production facilitiy.

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  • $\begingroup$ Aeroponics is also an option. But yeah, that's more or less the answer I had in mind. +1 $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Mar 5 '17 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Fayth85, I mentioned it, but not in bold text ... $\endgroup$ – o.m. Mar 5 '17 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ ... Now where did I leave my I'm a blonde get out of jail free card? $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Mar 5 '17 at 15:47
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A separate farming station

Whether connected as a separate cylinder from the living spaces or as a separate station nearby, you would want to build a place to do the farming. You would not really want to do it in the same place as the humans are living for various reasons.

Plants will not have the same temperature, gravity, atmosphere, and daylight requirements as the people. In particular, if you develop vegetable crops that can grow year round (like cabbages from the arctic circle that are accustomed to 24 hour days in the growing season), you will then want to keep these plants in full sun at optimal temperature (likely around 30 C) permanently. 30 C, and full 24-hour sunlight might not be the best conditions for people.

Since you would presumably develop low-gravity plant variants, your primary concern would be shaping a habitat so that it faced the sun (or got reflected sunlight) 24/7 to maximize growth per space. Space is your primary constraint; fertilizer and water are cheap compared to space stations. It is worth your effort to make optimal growing conditions to get 6 harvests per year to save space.

These conditions would probably not be great for animals, so the spacer would likely be a vegetarian. You would lean hard on beans and other pulses to meet protein requirements. Hope you like tofu!

Building vertically and trying aeroponics would probably not be useful. Since you are making your own station, you can design its geometry. Your geometry should involve the most area with applied sunlight possible, and that area should have gravity applied tangential to it, as on Earth. Plants will need some sort of gravity for their pressure based internal mechanics to work. Then you can grow Earth plants, slightly modified for space on this area. Aeroponics is great in theory, but there does not exist highly productive aeroponic breeds of corn, soybeans, lentils, potatoes, whatever else you want to eat. There do exist highly productive varieties of those plants for use in soil, so you should go with that.

So, in conclusion, develop a specialized farming station to grow your food at optimal conditions. This will give you the most food per area/volume while you are in space.

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I would go three ways:

  • mainly grow mushrooms and fungi combined with some high fat plants. Fungi and mushrooms can be easily cultivated and need less care than many vegetables. As they need no light they can be grown densely packed with packets of soil out of which the fungi can grow into all directions.
  • build biofilters for waste water that can double to grow edible algae. And other algae that can be used as fertilizer.
  • breed insects that feed on (plant) waste and provide lots of protein

I did not specify the kind of high fat plants because I lack the expertise when it comes to what would work. But there are an abundance of plants that produce oil. Soy, Rapeseed, Helianthus for example.

Here is an called Why Martian Settlers Will Eat Potatoes, Insects, Algae and Mushrooms. It is about food that could feed settlers on mars. They suggest potatoes instead of oil-plants but the rest is more or less what I suggested.

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  • $\begingroup$ Fungi and mushrooms can't recycle carbon from air back into edible food, and their nutrient value is quite low. And insects? Algae produces very little waste, and with little to no other plant matter you have nothing to feed to these insects. Sorry, but this answer doesn't look internally consistent, and is not consistent with needed closed carbon cycle. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Mar 7 '17 at 13:00
  • $\begingroup$ The question did not state that the plants are to produce the oxygen for the crew so this doesn't need to be addressed. And I stated growing some high fat plants alongside the mushrooms so between mushrooms, algae and oil plants there should be enough waste. So my answer is internally consistent and left the carbon cycle out because it wasn't part of the question. If the carbon cycle is important, why did you not downvote kingledon't answer that suggests not farming on the ship at all? $\endgroup$ – Umbranus Mar 7 '17 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ No reason for farming was given explicitly, and leaving out carbon cycle means that soon you will not have nutrients to grow your crops on. If you can take enough of them for the rest of your life, you don't have to farm. If you do have to farm, you can't ignore carbon cycle. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Mar 7 '17 at 16:06

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