It has been a momentous week for space news, with the USA announcing its new Space Force insignia. It’s very much like the old Air Force Space Command insignia, and also very much like the Star Trek logo, which had the internet in stitches. And this just days after they announced their new uniform, and it became apparent that they would be going about their business in a totally appropriate woodland camouflage pattern.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano removing the first cookie baked in space from the oven

There has also been a lot of media attention about the first cookies baked in space. If you remember, they were baked in the zero-g oven on the space station at the end of last year, then brought back to Earth for analysis. While it’s not yet clear whether they are safe to eat, what we do know is that the most successful baking attempt took two hours. The press release helpfully reminds us that “it takes far less time on Earth, under 20 minutes”. And yes, they did fill the space station with the smell of freshly-baked cookies when they were removed from the oven. It must have been complete torture.

It’s not long to wait now until the next commercial launch to the International Space Station, scheduled for 9th February. NG-13 is set to launch during Black History Month, and the spacecraft is named after the first African American to be selected as an astronaut, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. (Tragically Lawrence never made it to space, as he died in an air crash in 1967.)

What space gardening research is being sent? Well, SpaceTango is launching an experiment to investigate nitrogen fixation in microgravity

The experiment will explore the early stages of growth of Vigna unguiculata (cowpeas) that have been exposed to their symbiotic partner Rhizobium leguminosarum. The aim is to learn more about biologically-fixed nitrogen as a route towards more sustainable, efficient, and independent space-based agricultural systems.

Love radish
Happy radish seedling

And an experiment led by Dr Karl Hasenstein of the University of Louisiana will attempt to grow radishes in the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) facility. Its aim is to “identify the effects of the space environment and culture conditions on metabolite accumulation, flavor, enzyme activity, mineral uptake, and generation time. The research intends to transition from small plant-based research to studies that investigate nutritional value, interactions between small volumes of artificial substrate, and plant performance and cultivation conditions.” Any radishes grown will be returned to Earth for analysis.

“Radishes are an ideal subject to study in space. They’re small, grow quickly and can be eaten in their entirety. Even though most people would not eat the leaves, they are actually very good in a salad.”

Dr Karl Hasenstein, in La Louisiane

NASA was thinking about radishes and rockets way back in 2005. They identified radishes as a salad crop for space missions because “it is small, grows rapidly, provides essential nutrients and gives variety to the diet.” They discovered a fascinating potential issue facing space station gardeners.

“Astronauts depend heavily upon moist wipes similar to those you might use to wash your hands when traveling. These wipes contain alcohol that evaporates into the spacecraft’s air and is maintained at a level safe for humans. But this airborne alcohol – in just a small percentage of the allowable safe limit for the crew – can kill the radish plants and affect even the soil they grow in. Grown in air with just 10% of the allowable alcohol limit, the radishes are undersized. With 25% of the limit, the plants die.”

Grow your own space lettuce! Outredgeous seeds are available from Suttons in the UK
(Affiliate link)

Tom Carroll from Aspect Science tried to grow microgreens on simulated Martian soil. It didn’t go well, but the video is fun!

They’re having far more luck at Wageningen University, where they have been growing beans on artificial martian and lunar soil since November 2019. They’re even fertilising part of the crop with human urine that has been transformed into struvite crystals. The first beans appeared just before Christmas.

“We were certainly thrilled with this result, which was faster than we expected, although it meant I had to work between Christmas and New Years’ Eve.”

Researcher Wieger Wamelink
Beans growing in simulated Moon or Martian soil at Wageningen University.

And they have started harvesting the beans. They have been able to collect multiple beans from each plant in the artificial lunar soil and regular Earth potting soil. The martian soil took an extra week to produce a harvest. The press release also says that “almost a kilogram of beans has been harvested from the pots containing struvite. The yield from the pots without the struvite is a meagre few beans.”

Lucy Hedges from the BBC Travel Show got to spend 24 hours ‘on Mars’ when she visited Astroland, a Martian simulation in a Spanish cave. As tourist experiences go, it’s pretty top end, costing £5000 for a 30-day package that ends with 3 days in the simulation. 

GoffW leaves you this week with the news that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has called off the hunt for a female companion to join him on his forthcoming trip to the Moon. But not before nearly 30,000 hopeful ladies applied. And the Big Issue has confirmed that, despite the marketing hype, NASA never said pineapple plants would stop you snoring. And… space dinosaurs!