South Australian researchers at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space (P4S), are contributing their world-leading skillsets to international missions exploring the use of agriculture to support sustained space exploration.

Headquartered at the University of Adelaide, P4S is driving Australian leadership, collaboration and capacity in space-inspired plant and food research.

The team is part of an international consortium of partners pioneering the Lunar Effects on Agricultural Flora (LEAF) initiative, part of NASA’s Artemis III mission, that will see astronauts cultivate and return lunar-grown plants to Earth for the first time.

The LEAF project will collect plant growth and development data that will help scientists understand the use of plants grown for both human nutrition and life support on the Moon and beyond. It is being spearheaded by Space Lab Technologies in collaboration with the University of Adelaide, La Trobe University, and NASA Kennedy Space Center, all P4S partners, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture, University of Colorado Boulder and Purdue University.

Scheduled for launch in September 2026, the research marks a monumental step toward understanding how we might use agriculture in space to support human crews, paving the way for sustained lunar exploration and even missions to Mars.

During the mission, NASA will transport a ‘mini greenhouse’ – housing species including Wolffia (duckweeds) from the River Torrens in Adelaide – to the moon to cultivate and return lunar-grown plants – an essential step in supporting human life on extraterrestrial planets.

Associate Professor of Plant Synthetic Biology at the University of Adelaide and P4S Chief Investigator Jenny Mortimer said the mission will reveal how plants respond in an off-Earth environment, and how to build a robust, fully contained environment that allows them to thrive.

“The data we capture from the mission, both from the lunar surface and what we learn when we analyse the samples upon return, will help us to design the lunar and Martian crops of the future,” Associate Professor Mortimer said.

Experiments undertaken as part of the LEAF program will progress P4S goals to develop novel plant-based foods and biomanufacturing technologies that assist humans to explore deeper into space than ever before, while also advancing on-Earth sustainability and efficiency.

According to P4S Director and University of Adelaide Professor, Matthew Gilliham, the learnings will also provide new options for improving sustainable plant production and processing here on Earth.

“LEAF has been made possible by bringing together world-leading skillsets in engineering, plant science, molecular analysis, and space logistics – it is a perfect representation of what P4S is here to do, to assist in delivering a new frontier for humanity,” he said.

UK-Australia funding boost to plants for space

Earlier this month, the UK Space Agency also announced at the 39th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, that it would provide $3 million in funding through its International Bilateral Fund, towards another collaborative project involving the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plants for Space (P4S), led by UK company Vertical Future (VF).

The Autonomous Agriculture for Space Exploration project aims to deliver a fully autonomous agriculture system to the world’s first commercial space station being constructed by Axiom Space. The system is designed to be able to feed crewed space exploration missions with minimal human intervention. It is the UK Space Agency’s second-phase investment in the project, with initial funding for an exploratory phase greenlit in August 2023.

P4S Director, Professor Matthew Gilliham, said the international collaboration brings together world-leading capabilities to deliver novel technologies.

“The project will deliver prototypes for a fully autonomous agriculture system that can be monitored and operated remotely or with artificial intelligence, fit for future space exploration, aligned to NASA’s future Moon-to-Mars Artemis missions,” said Professor Gilliham.

“It will help us to deliver our aims of enabling long-term space habitation, and we will also be able to utilise the technology we develop to improve sustainability of food, medicine, and material production on Earth.”

VF is the fastest-growing vertical-farming research and development company in the United Kingdom. In addition to VF and the University of Adelaide’s involvement through P4S, the South Australian Space Industry Centre will be contributing expertise to the project, along with the University of Western Australia, University of Cambridge, Saber Astronautics, Axiom Space, all P4S partners, as well as the University of Southern Queensland.

Learn more about this international space collaboration.

Photo: Jenny Mortimer, University of Adelaide Associate Professor and P4S Chief Investigator