Welcome to Gardeners off World, my weekly round-up of the exciting world of interplanetary gardening!

If all goes well tomorrow, a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft will launch to the International Space Station with supplies and the latest batch of scientific experiments. 

Designated NG-12, this spacecraft will be carrying one of the most exciting tests the ISS has seen for a long time – the Zero-G Oven. A tiny little oven designed to investigate the possibilities of cooking in space, its first mission is to bake a special batch of Hilton DoubleTree’s chocolate chip cookies. This is the first food baked in space, and no one really knows what effect the lack of gravity will have on the biscuit, so the results of that one will be interesting to see. I can’t imagine how it’s going to play out with the astronauts, though. Although they will have to contend with a space station that smells like baking cookies, they won’t be allowed to eat them! They will have to be returned to Earth for analysis. Plus, even if the zero-g oven does win a permanent place on the ISS, it’s only capable of baking one cookie at a time…. 

The new batch of science also includes an astronaut on the ISS controlling a rover on Earth, which will help us to carry out robotic control missions on the Moon and Mars in the future. There’s a nifty gadget to recycle plastic into new filament for 3D printing. And astronauts will be malting barley in space (sprouting barley seeds, and then drying them) as a step towards brewing beer in microgravity.

Food for Mars and Moon
Food for Mars and Moon

Last month, Wieger Wamelink and his colleagues from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands published a new scientific paper on Crop growth and viability of seeds on Mars and Moon soil simulants. It’s the lastest publication to come out of their research into growing food crops in simulated off-world soils. They tried 10 different plants (garden cress, rocket, tomato, radish, rye, quinoa, spinach, chives, pea and leek) and grew 9 of them successfully. Spinach was the only species that failed to thrive. Their work is receiving quite a lot of press, but my favourite story on it so far has to be from the Metro. They made a giant leap of their own, proclaiming that “Nasa could grow tomatoes on Mars and it means weed farming may also be possible“!

The researchers are crowdfunding the next stage of their research, investigating the use of astronaut urine as fertiliser for Martian plants, if you’d like to help them along.

One of the hot topics in space research at the moment is investigating how to make the things an off-world settlement will need from local materials. This exciting video from ESA (from 2014) is all about using Moon rock (regolith) to create a radiation-proof home for long-term lunar residents. They have an accompanying article that explains the technology involved in 3D printing a Moon base.

There are also people investigating using Moon bricks to store heat, which could then be converted into electricity.

Living underground would save Moon settlers from freezing to death at night, a possibility BBC Future explored in 2015.

NASA is working very hard to increase astronaut diversity, but there’s a lot of catching up to do. Forbes has a fascinating article on space suits as symbols of equality, which states that:

“Of the more than five hundred humans who have been in orbit, more than half have been American. Russia and former Soviet states account for another fifth. A few Asian countries are starting to catch up to North American and Europe, but the rest of the world is underrepresented in space. Africa, in particular, is not doing well.”

One of the potential pastoral habitats being pitched by Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin. (Courtesy Blue Origin)
One of the potential pastoral habitats being pitched by Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin. [Image: Courtesy Blue Origin]

I try to be careful with my use of language around space flight, which is still often very outdated, and I have removed all references to “manned” and “unmanned”, replacing them with “crewed” and “uncrewed”, or “human”. Bill Nye also reminds us that we need to aim for space settlement, not colonisation, given “the violence and oppression that multiple colonizing powers have inflicted on native peoples around the world.”

In a similar vein, the Architect’s Newspaper has a piece on decoding the colonial history of Blue Origin’s space settlements.

Veggie Growth Chamber Ground Test
Veggie Growth Chamber Ground Test [Image: NASA]

But back to interplanetary gardening! NASA has released this cracking image of Jess Bunchek, an associate scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Jess is looking at plant cultivars inside the Veggie growth chamber in the Space Station Processing Facility, which was running a science verification test (SVT).

This SVT is studying three plants – Amara mustard (AKA Ethiopian kale, highland kale, Abyssinian mustard, and Texsel greens), ‘Outredgeous‘ red romaine lettuce and shungiku (chrysanthemum greens). They grew from seed film, making this the first SVT with this new plant growth material.

“Earlier this year, the amara mustard and shungiku plants were grown for the first time using seed bags – referred to as pillows – during the Sustained Veggie project, a study funded by the Human Research Program.”

According to SpaceRef

Meanwhile, in space, the Veg-04B experiment is growing mizuna:

Which is causing a great deal of excitement on board!

That’s just about it from GoffW this week, but if you’re spacey and crafty, then you might be interested to know that  Royal Astronomical Society is running a project to make a commemorative quilt to celebrate its 200th anniversary.

“200 years ago it was not uncommon for family and community members to come together to stitch quilts, often as a way of marking an important life event. Inspired by the communal and social aspect of the quilting tradition, the RAS is looking for participants to help create a bicentennial quilt.

There are instructions on how to participate on their website, and all finished squares must arrive at RAS by 1st August 2020.


See you next week for another cosmic edition of Gardeners Off World!