This week, Gardeners Off World watched as the latest SpaceX launch (CRS-19) delivered more exciting experiments to the International Space Station (ISS).

Two of the experiments will be of particular interest to interplanetary gardeners. The first involves worms, but the kind that we don’t see as they go about their essential work in the soil. The goal of the AstroNematode project is to develop biological controls for space pests. Their current experiment will investigate the movement and infection behaviour of beneficial nematodes, which control many agricultural insect pests. The researchers have sent sealed soil columns containing the nematodes and waxworms (Galleria mellonella), which will spend 30 days in space. They’ll be testing how nematodes move through the soil, reproduce and infect insect pests, and whether the symbiotic bacteria will function the same way in microgravity.

“Beneficial nematodes are part of a healthy soil microbiome necessary for agriculture. Understanding how they operate in microgravity is an important step toward growing crops on the Moon and Mars. This investigation could lead to improved pesticides and better understanding of new pheromones. The results also could help improve use of beneficial nematodes on Earth.”


The second involves seeds, and growing plants in space. For beer.

In March 2017 Budweiser proclaimed its intentions to be the first beer on Mars. In December that year, they send the first two Bud on Mars experiments to the ISS, to investigate how microgravity affects barley seedlings. (And Slate carried an article reviewing the challenges of brewing beer in space.)

Barley seeds.
Image credit: Space Tango

The Germination of ABI Voyager Barley Seeds in Microgravity project evaluates the effects of a microgravity environment on dry seeds, germination, and initial growth of Hordeum vulgare. The researchers are investigating exposure effects on dry barley seeds, and genetic alterations and morphological abnormalities in seedlings grown in microgravity.

Growing barley is only the first step to space beer. The next step is malting. Malting converts raw grains into malt by modifying starches into sugars that can be used in brewing, distilling, and food production.

In December 2018, a third experiment examined strains of barley as they went through the processes of steeping (rapid hydration), germination, and kilning (drying). The results of this research could help develop new barley varieties that are more tolerant to extreme environments.

And start-up Vostok beer created a beer designed to be drunk in space, and a bottle astronauts could drink it from. 

Budweiser is investigating the process of malting barley onboard the International Space Station.
Image credit: Space Tango

And now, the Malting ABI Voyager Barley Seeds in Microgravity experiment will test a microscale, automated malting procedure. 

“The payload automates the steeping, germination, and kilning processes associated with malting barley. The barley seeds arrive aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in a dry state to begin the malting process.

During the steeping process, the seeds are soaked in water so that the moisture content of the barley increases.

During the germination phase, the steeping water is removed, and the seeds are surrounded by air.

Once the seeds show early signs of germination, the system initiates the kilning process which uses heat to dry the seeds and prepare the resultant malt for stowage until return.”


Will the space station smell of malting barley, do you think?

In recent weeks, ESA’s Luca Parmitano has been controlling a rover on Earth from the ISS. His first drive, Analog-1, was to prove the technology ESA has developed to operate rovers remotely. The aim is for astronauts to be able to control robots on the surface of the Moon or Mars, from a space station in orbit.

A week later, Luca drove the rover around its hangar in the Netherlands, visiting three sites and using its robotic arm to collect rock samples. A science team at ESA’s Astronaut Centre in Germany liaised with Luca to decide which of the test rocks were worthy of collection.

It takes a certain amount of imagination to see a hangar in the Netherlands as the surface of Mars. Rural Iceland makes a better analog, with its lifeless, grey, rocky terrain with mountains and plains that stretch for miles on end.

A team of researchers spent three weeks there this summer, studying the terrain to learn more about how the Red Planet’s sediments change physically and chemically. They also tested the capability of artificial intelligence and drones for rover science operations and navigation.

“It is very exciting to know the data we’re collecting here will be used by the 2020 team when they land on the surface of Mars. When you perform this operation, you’re working with complex robotics and science questions in extreme environments, so you have be sure the decisions are efficient.”

Ryan Ewing, via Texas A&M Today

On Earth, there is an ongoing debate about whether humans first employed yeasts and grains to make beer or bread. Archaeology seems to be leaning towards beer, at the moment. It may be a dumb question.

But which will win the space race? Puratos is a company that “develops innovative ingredients and solutions for bakers, patissiers and chocolatiers around the world.” They’re going to need to update that tagline soon though, because their SpaceBakery project kicks off in January 2020. In four large containers, the research team will be working on an enclosed “ecological plant cultivation system” with a built-in bakery. They will be investigating how to create the ideal environment for wheat crops, as well as other plants that could be included to increase the nutritional value of the resulting bread.

“But, why focus on bread? Because it is highly nutritional and consumed all over the world, making it an ideal candidate as a staple food for space exploration.”

The SpaceBakery project also aims to have a clear impact on Earth, focusing on producing food more sustainably, and improving a staple food that feeds so many people on Earth.

I can’t embed the video of a fish and vegetable farm on a hotel rooftop in Singapore, but it’s well worth clicking through to watch it (it’s only 3:27 long). The farm is aquaponic, circulating water from fish tanks to feed plants on fish waste. It’s also organic and produced up to 1200kg of plants and 35kf of fish each month for the hotel. I particularly love the part where the gardener is explaining how many types of mint he grows for cocktails!

See you next week for another action-packed Gardeners Off World!