Scientists hope to grow sustainable food sources in space to supply space missions
Gardening has literally reached new heights with a landmark step in growing plants in space. Astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) successfully grew a bright-orange Zinnia in microgravity this January as part of an ongoing NASA mission to grow edible plants in space. This project is a platform for future food production in space and has implications on long-term exploration missions. With this success, NASA scientists are planning to grow tomato plants on the space station in 2018.
The plants are grown in a fresh food production system, dubbed Veggie, which contains LED lights and a soilless root mat on which seeds are planted. On Earth, researchers at the ISS Environmental Simulator Laboratory in Texas monitor the growth of plants and replicate the same procedures to ensure the plants are safe to eat. According to NASA, plants grown without soil require less water and fertilizer, do not require pesticides, and grow three times faster than plants grown in soil.
Red romaine lettuce was the first crop planted in the Veggie facility in 2014. Its astronaut gardeners initially faced some difficulties, as some plants were not able to grow due to drought stress. Plants create internal pressure by forcing excess water out of their leaves and drawing fresh water from their roots, but can do so only in specific humidity. After a few months of adjusting Veggie’s humidity, the crew successfully grew and ate the lettuce. As the plants grow, scientists also collect microbial samples from their leaves to determine if there are any microorganisms growing on them.
Zinnia flowers were selected to be Veggie’s next crop because they can help scientists learn how plants flower in microgravity. In comparison to lettuce, the Zinnia plant is more sensitive to light and environmental conditions. It was also chosen as a precursor to growing tomato plants, as it is more difficult to grow and has a longer growth duration. Scheduled for March 16, a cargo resupply mission from the private spaceflight company SpaceX is bringing more crops to Veggie. This new experiment will also include two sets of Chinese cabbage and one set of red romaine lettuce.
Through the Veggie project, NASA hopes to learn how to grow a sufficient supply of fresh greens for deep space missions. Growing plants also assists in atmosphere recycling aboard spaceships and is psychologically beneficial to astronauts, according to NASA. Scientists are also researching the optimal balance of light and mineral composition in the Veggie system.
These Zinnia, however, are not the first flower blooms in space. Recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records, Arabidopsis was the first plant to flower and produce seeds in space in 1982, aboard the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station.