NASA astronaut Kate Rubins poses next to a thriving radish crop growing inside the Advanced Plant Habitat in the International Space Station.
Located in Europe’s Columbus module, the NASA experiment is the latest in the study of plants growing in microgravity.
With plans to visit the Moon and Mars, future astronauts will need a regular, fresh source of food as they take on these missions farther away from home. In addition to providing much-needed vitamins and minerals, growing plants in space contributes to sustainability and adds homey touch to exploration.
Growing plants in the microgravity conditions of the International Space Station has allowed researchers to fine tune the approach: European research showed plants respond best to red and blue light, giving the Columbus module a disco feel.
Because plants no longer have gravity to root them to soil, the seeds are grown in ‘pillows’ that help evenly distribute fertilizer and water to the roots.
Radishes were chosen because it is a model plant; they have a short cultivation period and are genetically similar to the plant most frequently studied in space, Arabidopsis. Radishes are also edible and nutritious, with this batch ready for harvest any day now. Samples will be sent back to Earth for study.
The Advanced Plant Habitat is a self-contained growth chamber requiring very little intervention from astronauts. It is equipped with LED lights, porous clay, over 180 sensors and cameras regulated by researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA. From there, plant growth is monitored and conditions adjusted as necessary to better distribute water and fertilizer and control moisture and temperature levels.
The next ESA astronaut to launch to the Station is Thomas Pesquet for mission Alpha. Slated to arrive in Spring 2021, perhaps Thomas will get to try another batch of space-grown greens.
British engineers are fine-tuning a process that will be used to extract oxygen from lunar dust, leaving behind metal powders that could be 3D printed into construction materials for a Moon base.
It could be an early step to establishing an extra-terrestrial oxygen extraction plant. This would help to enable exploration and sustain life on the Moon while avoiding the enormous cost of sending materials from Earth.
It was a difficult campaign to organise, but the scientific results are some of the best ever. Earlier this month, over 60 researchers ran 11 experiments in an Airbus aircraft with no less than three pilots. This was no ordinary flight: the A310 'Air Zero G' flew in repeated arcs 600 m up and down, providing ‘weightlessness’ in freefall conditions for all passengers and their experiments, 20 seconds at a time.
Image: Thomas Pesquet works in the European Columbus laboratory in space
Researchers are preparing for a new round of International Space Station experiments in a facility designed to demystify the role of surface tension and instabilities (Marangoni effects) on heat transfer to, and within an evaporating or condensing fluid. The tools: lasers, purple light and an out-of-focus camera to get the sharpest result.