NASA's space Veggie patch
NASA’s space Veggie Mission Patch, image credit: NASA

Fresh from the success that allowed astronauts to eat lettuce grown in space in August, NASA’s Veggie plant-growing hardware on the International Space Station (ISS) has been reloaded with new plant pillows – this time sown with Zinnia ‘Profusion’.

These Zinnias will take twice as long as the lettuce to grow – 60 days in total – and are expected to be in bloom in the New Year. They will have a special regimen of 10 hours of LED light followed by 14 hours of darkness.

It may seem slightly frivolous to grow flowers in space, but it makes perfect sense. Not only will there be a noticeable effect on crew morale (and this is one of the facets of the experiment that NASA is tracking), but getting plants to flower in space is one of the things we need to crack if we want to be able to feed ourselves in off-world environments. Whilst we’re obviously well on the way to being able to grow salad in space, it’s only a small part of our diet. Fruiting plants, such as tomatoes, have to flower (and those flowers have to be pollinated) before they will fruit. There’s also a question of whether pollen will be problematic in an entirely enclosed environment.

And, of course, if we want to be able to continually farm in space, we need to be able to take plants through their whole lifecycle, from seeds to flowers and back to seeds.

10 day old Arabidopsis thaliana plants. Image credit: Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul/ NASA

The first extraterrestrial seeds were grown on the Russian Mir space station in the 1980s. These were Thale Cress, Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant often used in scientific experiments because a) it has a very short lifecycle and b) it was the first plant to have its genome sequenced. Here on Earth, it’s better known as a weed, and technically it’s edible – it’s a Brassica.

You probably wouldn’t want to eat too much of it, though, and we had to wait until 1996 for the first harvest of proper crop seeds produced off world. Also on Mir, this was dwarf wheat ‘Apogee’ – a variety specially bred for a life in space.

Reliably producing away from Earth is still a long way off, but apparently NASA has scheduled in tomatoes for a 2017 mission.

Grow your own space zinnias

Here in the UK it’s not the right season to grow Zinnias, but the Profusion varieties (and I don’t know which colour they have chosen!) appear to be widely available, so if you’re in a warmer part of the world right now you can grow along with Veggie 🙂

RHS Rocket Science project
Image credit: RHS Rocket Science project

British astronaut Tim Peake will be onboard the ISS when the Zinnias flower. His Principia mission is scheduled to blast off on 15th December, and Tim will be in space until June 2016. He’s doing lots of educational outreach as part of his mission (as well as some astrobiology, apparently, so we’ll have to keep an eye on that), including a gardening project with the RHS. The RHS sent two kilograms of rocket seeds (Eruca sativa) into space at the beginning of September, and they will stay in orbit until spring. Once they splash back down, UK schoolchildren will be growing them alongside Earth-bound samples, to see what differences a trip into space has made. There’s still time for schools to sign up for the rocket science mission, which aims to inspire a love of gardening (and science!) in the next generation. (Oh how I wish the careers advisor had told me you could be an ASTROBIOLOGIST when I was at school! How exciting would that be?)

Did you know? The rocket seeds currently orbiting the planet were the second batch prepared by the RHS. The first blew up when the SpaceX-7 rocket exploded at the end of June. It’s space, these things happen. It’s not like flying to Mallorca.