Whilst it may seem like something from a fantasy world, NASA is looking at ways to provide astronauts with nutrients in a long-lasting, easily absorbed form — such as freshly grown fresh fruits and vegetables. Plants will be crucial for long-duration missions in order to keep the astronauts healthy. When crews venture further into space, traveling for months or years without resupply shipments, the vitamins in the prepackaged meals break down over time, presenting a problem for astronaut health. This is where the solution of plants could be introduced.
The Vegetable Production System, known as Veggie, is a space garden residing on the space station. Veggie’s purpose is to help NASA study plant growth in microgravity, while adding fresh food to the astronauts’ diet, alongside enhancing happiness and well-being on the orbiting laboratory.
To date, Veggie has successfully grown a variety of plants, including three types of lettuce, Chinese cabbage, mizuna mustard, red Russian kale and zinnia flowers. In the future, the team at Kennedy Space Centre vision producing foods such as tomatoes and peppers, as well as berries and certain beans that are rich in antioxidants. This would provide multiple health benefits for the crew members who eat them, such as providing some space radiation protection.
HOW IT WORKS:
The Veggie garden is about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage and typically holds six plants. Each plant grows in a “pillow” filled with a clay-based growth media and fertilizer. The pillows are important to help distribute water, nutrients and air in a healthy balance around the roots. Without the pillows, the roots would either drown in water or be engulfed by air, due to the way fluids in space move (they tend to form bubbles).
Advanced Plant Habitat
Similar to Veggie, there is also the ‘Advanced Plant Habitat’ (APH) on the station for plant research. When a harvest is ready for research studies, the crew collects samples from the plants, freezes or chemically fixes them to preserve them, and sends them back down to Earth to be studied so scientists can better understand how space affects their growth and development.
Biological Research in Canisters
The final and last facility used to study food in space is the ‘Biological Research in Canisters’, otherwise known as the ‘BRIC’. The BRIC is a facility used to study the effect of space on organisms small enough to grow in petri dishes, such as yeast and microbes.
BRIC-LED is the latest version, which added light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to support biology such as plants, mosses, algae and cyanobacteria that need light to make their food.
Right now, BRIC-LED is undergoing hardware validation tests. Scientists at NASA want to ensure the LEDs don’t get too hot for the plants, in addition to other system checks. Soon, there is hope that researchers will use it to conduct studies.
Gilroy, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madisonis, is interested in how the Arabidopsis plant’s gene expression changes in space. “There are literally thousands of experiments done on Earth [on Arabidopsis],” Gilroy explains. “Cold shock. Touched them. Not watered them. Too much water. Shouted at them,” he says with a chuckle. “Those databases are all available to us. So we look and see if there are any patterns anyone has found and what on the ground mimics what happens in space.”
Research like this will help NASA understand how to keep plants flourishing in space and better enable long-duration missions.