I determined at a young age I could never be an astronaut because of what they eat in outer space. There’s something so unappealing about freeze-dried space food, don’t you think? Of course, there are many reasons for why I can’t be an astronaut. But let’s pretend the food thing is why I’m not on the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA has come a long way from the dry, ready to eat foods I remember sampling in school as a kid. With space missions becoming longer and longer, a major revamp was needed. New technology is allowing astronauts to garden in space, giving them access to fresh and nutritious foods while they’re away from Earth.
The most recent addition to ISS is called the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), designed to test the preferred growing conditions of plants in space, while also giving them a larger root and shoot area. NASA says it’s about the size of a mini-fridge and will help astronauts grow a wider variety of crops. So far, they’ve had success with small plants related to cabbage, mustard, and Dwarf Wheat.
The APH is being used in conjunction with the Vegetable Production System, or the Veggie, a deployable plant growth unit which has been growing salad-type crops on the ISS for several years now. According to Popular Science, the APH’s ability to control temperature, as well as the moisture, oxygen, and light levels, mean researchers are learning how to grow plants best in the Veggie system.
The hope is to one day be able to grow tomato and pepper plants with little intervention from members of the crew, so they can focus on more important tasks.
How Do Plants Grow In Space?
The technology behind the APH system is amazing; NASA explains it has monitoring and environmental controls that regulate temperature, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels appropriate for growing a variety of different plants. All of the data is also sent to the ground, so researchers can relay information to the astronauts, like whether or not more water is needed in the chamber, or if filters need to be changed.
Compared to the LED system used in the Veggie (basic red, blue and green LEDs set at low, medium, or high), the APH is pretty advanced. It comes equipped with white, red, blue, green, and far-red LEDs, and has many different settings allowing it to increase or decrease the light intensity, depending on the plant.
What’s interesting is that all of the experimenting going on up in space could very well have an impact on those of us back on Earth. The APH is able to test responses for both ideal and inhospitable growth environments by playing with the humidity and temperature levels in the chamber. NASA researchers say by learning more about the conditions plants thrive in, gardeners living in extremely dry parts of the world or in areas with poor soil may one day be able to adopt large-scale automated growth systems.
The APH is also the testing center for growing multiple generations of plants from a single seed brought from Earth. How’s that for food security?
Beyond the fact that astronauts are now being supplied with a steady flow of nutritious foods, NASA says growing vegetables and flowers on the ISS is good for the mind and soul too. Doctors often link gardening to better mental health, and there’s no doubt it can help boost the mood and relieve the stress of the astronauts so far removed from family, friends, and all of civilization.
Who knows how far these growing systems will take us and the astronauts aboard the ISS. Maybe, one day, all the way to Mars and back?
Featured image and video courtesy of NASA.