NASA’s exploration requires research into how light affects both humans and plants: John Glenn’s first trip into Earth orbit lasted just under five hours, but today, astronauts regularly stay six months or longer on the International Space Station. Experiencing over a dozen sunrises and sunsets each day means an astronaut’s biological clock tends to be in the wrong time zone. And for longer deep space missions, NASA needs to develop ways to grow food without relying on sunlight.
NASA’s lighting research, however, has had benefits far beyond space. It has helped develop biologically oriented LED technology for everyday life on Earth – giving people better rest and helping plants grow.
From 1997 to 2017, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) looked into how long-duration spaceflight affected people, funded with grants from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. One area of interest was light sources and how they affected brain activity. NSBRI funded two professors, Thomas Jefferson University’s George Brainard, and Harvard Medical School’s Steven Lockley, to learn more.
Lockley and Brainard’s research found that exposure to excess blue light at the wrong time could throw off people’s body clocks. This happened because the body’s production of melatonin, a key hormone for managing circadian rhythms, was inhibited when certain wavelengths of blue light hit photoreceptors in the eyes.
Another Lighting Science spinoff that has capitalized on that company’s experience working with NASA is VividGro of Chicago, which primarily sells to industrial cultivators.
This technology also has its origins in the LED lighting designed for the space station. Like the space station lighting array it’s derived from, VividGro’s lamps use specific wavelengths to induce biological reactions in living organisms. Instead of managing human biorhythms, however, they’re tuned exactly to the right frequencies to power plant metabolism.
Because LED technology is so efficient, they also use much less energy than fluorescent options, consuming nearly 50% less electricity than the high-intensity discharge lamps previously used at indoor greenhouses.
The company’s FlowerMax line is intended to provide for flowering plants, while the VegMax lights are designed for growing vegetables like lettuce. In 2021, the company was acquired by AgTech Holdings, and its products are exclusively distributed by the controlled environment agriculture company GroAdvisor.
Even after more than two decades of development, Maxik believes there’s a lot more that can be done with LEDs.
“This is still an adolescent business in my view,” Maxik said. “Saving watts per unit doesn’t take into account all the other properties we can associate with light. We can now manipulate that freely and use it to help people.”
NASA has a long history of transferring technology to the private sector. The agency’s Spinoff publication profiles NASA technologies that have transformed into commercial products and services, demonstrating the broader benefits of America’s investment in its space program. Spinoff is a publication of the Technology Transfer program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD).Internet Explorer Channel Network