by April Klazema
April is a professional copywriter for web content and social media who finds the idea of growing fresh food at home fascinating.
This article was originally published in Garden Culture Magazine, Issue 2 under the title, “Growing in Space”.
Orbiting approximately 350 kilometers over the surface of the Earth is the International Space Station (ISS). Since 2002 the ISS has had a greenhouse where plants of all varieties are grown using hydroponics. It is truly amazing to think of the dozens of plant experiments happening above us, but we live in a world where new advances occur on a daily basis, including miles over our heads. The coolest part about this technology is the type of experiments they are doing up there.
SPACE PLANTS NEED MORE WATER
In one of the most recent experiments, scientists were growing a plant they have not grown before, at least not in space. This plant, a type of Japanese lettuce known as Mizuna, grew much faster in space than it does on Earth. After a sensor malfunctioned, and more water poured into a module than was planned, the Mizuna shot up. This shows that plants in space may need more water than those on Earth if optimal growth is to be achieved. In the case of the Mizuna, the experiment showed that the lettuce leaves grew twice as fast as their Earthly relatives. This is extremely significant, as over the next several decades, humans will go further from the surface of the Earth than ever before. Sending food to those travelling through space will certainly not be an easy thing to do. The combination of microgravity and water, in this case, has shown that it is possible to grow food quickly, even in the confines of space.
FASTER HARVESTS ANYWHERE
Another experiment soon to be going on over our heads is something that probably isn’t completely foreign to gardeners here on Earth. You probably know that not everyone has a green thumb, and astronauts are no different. While they may not be excellent gardeners, they still require fresh food, especially for extended periods in space. Enter VEGGIE, a vegetable production system that is being prepared to go up to the space station for this very reason. The cool thing about VEGGIE is that it is a very simple idea, essentially a “do it yourself kit”, but it is supercharged with water, nutrients, and a bit of electricity. Edible plants like lettuce, radishes, and other leafy greens can be grown in a matter of days. Plants like tomatoes or beans could be fully grown in little time. The way the lights, water, and nutrients work together in
VEGGIE make it extremely speedy, and the eventual goal is to not only feed astronauts, but to use VEGGIE at home – and even as a sort of outreach for impoverished groups here on Earth. Imagine growing your own veggies in half the time, not to mention with half the money of a typical organic grocery bill!
TAMING THE ROOTS OF SPACE PLANTS
Another experiment that has been done in the vast reaches of space, well… aboard the ISS that is, may be an exciting innovation to those interested in how plants grow. Known as HydroTropi, this experiment takes a look into how plants grow in microgravity and whether or not microgravity has a positive or negative effect on root growth. What is known already is that in microgravity situations, roots grow haphazardly and not up and down as they do on Earth. The point of the experiment is to find out if it is possible to manipulate root growth, which
could lead to better growing conditions on Earth. With this information, we could really make significant advances in gardening and agriculture right here.
HOME AND LUNAR AIR FILTRATION
If these ingenious experiments aren’t quite enough to satisfy your sci-fi thirst, you might be more interested in some gardening experiments happening in China. Right now, they are exploring the possibility of putting a vegetable garden on Mars! To test the theory, a 300 cubic meter cabin was constructed. Inside of that cabin, lived two people and four types of vegetables. Because the plants gave them oxygen and they in turn gave the plants carbon dioxide, there was a perfect environment for both to live. The cabin served as a prototype for the
Chinese space program’s astronaut life support system. Eventually, they intend to use it for housing on the moon, or even on Mars.
LOW PRESSURE: A LONG, DRY LIFE
Speaking of Mars, for the past eight years or so, experiments have been going on to find out if plants can grow in environments similar to the Martian atmosphere. When you think about this possibility, growing plants on the moon seems like old news. In order to make it happen though, scientists will have to figure out how to overcome the pressure problem. Atmospheric pressure on Mars is a lot lower than that on Earth. This causes plants to act as if they are drying out, which means they will not have sufficient output.
There is good news though. The latest experiments done by NASA on these potential Martian gardens have been promising. Scientists have been able to manipulate pressure, light, water, and nutrients. This makes it possible to adjust conditions in slight increments for more accurate results. Hopefully, it will allow them to prevent plants from behaving as they would in drought conditions. On the other hand, plants in low pressure environments tend to live longer because of more efficient hormone production. While you may not be growing your balcony or backyard garden in any low-pressure zones quite this extreme, these experiments could result in more productive crops during drought years, leading to better and cheaper produce for all of us.
The gardening experiments being done in space could have a significant impact not only on the future of space exploration, but also on garden innovations here on earth. Whether they help us reduce the amount of land, water, or nutrients needed to grow our food or help our astronauts better survive on distant planets, they will surely help us move forward when it comes to how we grow food. Essentially, as we learn more about how plants grow in zero gravity, and without the comforts of their native soil, we are also learning more about how to feed the future of humanity both here at home on earth and in space.