Firms work on growing food in space so humans can live on the moon

As NASA gears up for a manned moon landing through its Artemis program, some Japanese venture companies are taking steps toward making it possible for humans to eventually live there.

Shingo Horiguchi, 41, president of space-business consulting firm DigitalBlast Inc., said many things humans need to live on Earth will also be required for living on the moon or Mars–meaning potential markets for companies in the future.

The first big one is food and plant cultivation, since living and working on the moon requires a large amount of food, but transporting it from Earth would cost huge amounts of money.

Plants on Earth know which way to grow and burrow their roots due to gravity, but they have trouble with that in space.

So, the Tokyo-based firm developed a device in May that artificially generates gravity for plants.

About the size of a large backpack, at 20 centimeters in diameter, 40 cm wide and 5 kilograms in weight, it can create the same gravity in space as that on Earth or the moon.

A user can put plants in three capsules, which the machine rotates to create gravity. The user can change the rotation speed of each capsule, with more than 100 rotations a minute generating the same gravity as Earth, less than 50 rotations for that of the moon, while no rotations mean zero-gravity.

The device, called the “AMAZ,” was named after a god from Japanese mythology.

Horiguchi said there have been many experiments comparing plant cultivation in zero-gravity and under Earth’s gravity, but it is rare to do experiments focusing on plant cultivation on the moon or Mars.

After working as an engineer in the financial industry, Horiguchi joined Japan Research Institute Ltd. and has done space-industry consulting work for the central and local governments. He founded his firm in 2018.

Horiguchi said private companies in Japan find it difficult to enter the space industry because of the strong image of space exploration being a national project, whereas in the United States, many private firms have entered the field.

He said if Japan opens up the market more for private firms, it would create great business opportunities.

Not only that, but Japanese companies could help advance the industry. They have so far focused on developing satellites and rockets, but Horiguchi said food is essential for humans to live on the moon.

He worked on creating the gravity-generating device with four others who joined his company: a former ground control worker for the International Space Station (ISS); a designer; a construction consultant; and an accounting consultant.

They developed the device in about a year and now aim to install and operate it on the ISS in fiscal 2024.

Total expenses, including transportation costs to the ISS, amount to about 300 million yen ($2 million). The firm conducted a crowdfunding campaign to pay for part of the cost of the launch.

“I would like to create a world where people from all walks of life can be involved in space,” Horiguchi said.

MAKING MOON SOIL

In February, venture company Towing Inc., working with major construction firm Obayashi Corp., succeeded in growing komatsuna, Japanese mustard spinach, by using sand like that found on the moon.

The Nagoya-based company, established in 2020, aims to grow crops at a future lunar base by using human waste as fertilizer.

The company is working on turning moon sand into soil that can be easily used to grow crops with technology developed by the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO) and put into practical use by the company.

It heats up lunar sand and converts it into a material with many small bumps and dents that can provide habitats for micro-organisms. Micro-organisms and organic fertilizers would then be added to turn the material into soil.

“Soon enough, sustainable cultivation will be required both on Earth and in space,” said Kohei Nishida, 28, the president of Towing. “We would like to use (this technology) on Earth as well.”

CALLS FOR MORE PRIVATE SECTOR INVOLVEMENT

NASA is currently working on landing astronauts on the moon in 2025 under the Artemis program, the first since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

It aims to build a lunar base and secure food, looking ahead to a future where humanity establishes lunar settlements.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) said private companies will be “essential to strengthen the industrial base that supports the independence of Japan’s space activities.”

Hidetaka Aoki, director of Space Port Japan Association, a general incorporated association, said efforts to achieve self-sufficiency on the moon are under way in various countries, but there are currently few projects led by private companies.

He said the main strength the private sector can leverage over governments is speed.

“There is a risk of failure, but if companies can establish a track record, it will be a good stimulus to the nation as well.”

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