Galactic green thumbs

Featured Image: Astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency displays Extra Dwarf Pak Choi plants growing aboard the International Space Station. 

Explorers have known for centuries that bringing along a little plant life on their travels was necessary for survival. In the 1700s British sailors learnt the hard way that without the Vitamin C in their diets they would quickly succumb to scurvy. They may have been teased about their lime-eating habit but at least they had all their teeth!

Now space explorers are looking for ways to make sure they too have a supply of fresh produce to keep them healthy thousands of kilometres away from their home planet. 

Astronauts that are currently on the International Space Station receive their nutrients through freeze-dried and prepackaged meals sent from Earth. As future space exploration takes them   months and even years away from their home planet such supply shipments will take much longer to reach them. Unfortunately, vitamins break down over time so those within any long-distance deliveries will not pack the same nutritional punch as fresher food.

Steaks on Saturn? Veggies may not be your only choice on future space menus. Scientists from Israel have been able to grow meat on the Space Station. With the help of a 3D bioprinter they were able to multiply cells from a cow to create a full-size steak. 

The healthiest option will be for astronauts to grow their own food. It will be important that the Martians aren’t the only ones in space with green thumbs!

Currently astronauts are tending a number of experimental gardens on the space station. NASA’s Vegetable Production System, known as Veggie, is one of them. It is the size of a small suitcase and holds around six plants.  Each plant grows in a ‘pillow’ that helps distribute water, nutrients and air in a safe way around the roots of the plant. Without the pillow they might drown in water or be smothered by air.

Flight Engineer Shannon Walker tends to plants growing inside the Veggie plant growth facility for the Veg-03J space botany study.

Berries, certain beans and other foods rich in antioxidants provide astronauts with some protection from space radiation.

The two biggest complications that make gardening in space much different to here on Earth is the absence of both sunlight and gravity. No living thing on Earth has been challenged to evolve in such extraterrestrial conditions so how will a plant thrive? 

Image Credit: NASA/Bill White

Shining down on the Veggie garden are a bank of light emitting diodes (LEDs) that may help make a plant feel more at home.

LED light, like sunlight, provides a full spectrum of light to a plant. It can even be tailored to best suit a plant’s growth throughout the stages of its life cycle. Typically, red and blue wavelengths are used most by plants for photosynthesis and growth. This is evident in the Veggie chamber which glows a purplish pink colour.

The LEDs may also be solving the gravity question. It has long been thought that gravity was responsible for drawing roots downward, however even the roots in the micro-gravity environment of the space station grow similar to those on earth. It may be that they are responding to the LEDs and growing away from the light source.

Plants are also good for our mental health both here on Earth and in space!

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