Space agriculture in micro- and hypo-gravity: A comparative study of soil hydraulics and biogeochemistry in a cropping unit on Earth, Mars, the Moon and the space station
Increasing interest is developing towards soil-based agriculture as a long-term bioregenerative life support during space and planetary explorations. Contrary to hydroponics and aeroponics, soil-based cropping would offer an effective approach to sustain food and oxygen production, decompose organic wastes, sequester carbon dioxide, and filter water. However, the hydraulics and biogeochemical functioning of soil systems exposed to gravities lower than the Earth's are still unknown. Since gravity is crucial in driving water flow, hypogravity will affect nutrient and oxygen transport in the liquid and gaseous phases, and could lead to suffocation of microorganisms and roots, and emissions of toxic gases. A highly mechanistic model coupling soil hydraulics and nutrient biogeochemistry previously tested on soils on Earth ( g=9.806 m s -2) is used to highlight the effects of gravity on the functioning of cropping units on Mars (0.38 g), the Moon (0.16 g), and in the international space station (ISS, nearly 0 g). For each scenario, we have compared the net leaching of water, the leaching of NH 3, NH 4+, NO 2- and NO 3- solutes, the emissions of NH 3, CO 2, N 2O, NO and N 2 gases, the concentrations profiles of O 2, CO 2 and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in soil, the pH, and the dynamics of various microbial functional groups within the root zone against the same control variables in the soil under terrestrial gravity. The response of the soil ecodynamics was relatively linear; gravitational accelerations lower than the Earth's resulted in 90-100% lower water leaching rates, 95-100% lower nutrient leaching rates, and lower emissions of NH 3 and NO gases (80-95% and 30-40%, respectively). Lower N loss through leaching resulted in 60-100% higher concentration of the microbial biomass, but did not alter the vertical stratification of the microbial functional groups with respect to the stratification on Earth. However, the higher biomass concentration produced higher emissions of N 2O, N 2, and CO 2 gases (80%, 200% and 40%, respectively).