When astronauts finally make it to Mars, they’ll need something to eat. And while NASA is working on shelf-stable rations for those eventual missions, astronauts will ideally be able to grow their own plants while exploring other worlds. That’s where the University of Arizona’s inflatable greenhouse comes in, designboom reports.

The University of Arizona's Controlled Environment Agriculture Center is helping the space agency develop a closed-loop system that can provide astronauts with food, clean the air, and recycle waste and water in alien environments. This “bioregenerative life support system” uses plants and LEDs to recreate what’s essentially a miniature Earth environment, according to designboom.

The Lunar Greenhouse prototype is an 18-foot-long, 7-foot-wide cylinder that is designed to take the carbon dioxide that astronauts breathe out and turn it into oxygen through plant photosynthesis. Astronauts would introduce water into the system either from supplies they bring with them or that they find after they arrive, if possible. That water is then run through the cylinder, flowing along the plants’ roots and back into the greenhouse storage system.

The scientists and engineers at the University of Arizona and NASA’s Kennedy Advanced Life Support Research project are currently trying to figure out what seeds, plants, and equipment will be necessary to make the system work on the moon or Mars. It may need to be buried underground to prevent radiation damage, hence the LEDs, but in certain environments, it may be able to work with just sunlight.

Scientists have already been working on growing plants beyond Earth’s atmosphere without a dedicated greenhouse. Several kinds of plants, including vegetables and flowers, have been grown on the International Space Station. But for longer-term exploration of other worlds, we’ll need something more permanent than a space station.

“The greenhouses provide a more autonomous approach to long-term exploration on the moon, Mars and beyond,” the Kennedy Space Center’s Ray Wheeler said in a press release. It would, of course, be a lot easier to travel to Mars with a bunch of seeds than to bring along years’ worth of food and air purification equipment.

[h/t designboom]