Hello, and welcome to Gardeners off World! On 15 February, the NG-13 cargo ship blasted off from NASA Wallops on its way to the International Space Station (ISS). It arrived on 18 February, where NASA astronaut Drew Morgan caught it with the Canadarm2 robotic arm.

The U.S. Cygnus cargo craft from Northrop Grumman was about 12 meters away from the station when the Canadarm2 robotic arm captured it. [Image credit: NASA]

One of the things it carried into space was the first British industrial contribution to the ISS; the Columbus Ka-band (COLKa) Terminal is a radio antenna designed to enable astronauts to connect with scientists and family on Earth at home broadband speeds. The UK was an original signatory to the 1998 treaty that brought the ISS into being, but never got involved in building the station. It wasn’t until 2012 that Britain really got interested in the ISS, and coughed up some money for ESA – allowing Tim Peake to become an astronaut and providing this commercial opportunity.

More interestingly, perhaps, the cargo vessel also included the first fresh cheese sent for American astronauts. 

“For the first time, NASA’s Food Lab at the Johnson Space Center was able to pack some hard cheeses in a cooler-like “cold bag” for the astronauts. The station crew has been requesting Parmesan and other hard cheeses since September as an alternative to the butter-like spread currently available. But finding a fresh hard cheese just before a launch, and then keeping it fresh for the days-long trip to the station was a challenge.”

Space.com

Wisconsin sharp cheddar, Parmesan and Fontina launched into space; the crew had requested Manchego, but it proved impossible to find at short notice. 

“The cheese that we do send normally in the standard menu is a shelf-stable cheddar cheese spread. And that is worlds of away from a wedge of Parmesan cheese, as you can imagine. Sending this is a reminder of home.”

Ryan Dowdy, food systems manager at NASA’s Food Lab, via Space.com

Even more exciting, NG-13 carried some more seeds to grow in Veggie. The astronauts will be running experiments VEG-03 J, K and L – testing a new seed-handling material, a new crop in space and the efficiency of the current Veggie growing technologies.

For all of the previous Veggie experiments, the seeds were fixed in place on Earth before being flown to the ISS. VEG-03 J will test a new way to handle seeds. It uses ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce seeds embedded in a film, similar to breath freshener strips, which dissolves in contact with water. Any gardener knows that small seeds are hard to handle; in microgravity it’s even harder! So seed films should help astronauts store, handle, and plant crops easily.

KSC-20190930-PH-CSH01_0004
‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce, Amara mustard and shungiku growing in the Veggie growth chamber in the Florida spaceport’s Space Station Processing Facility on Sept. 30, 2019. This was a science verification test (SVT) using seed films, a new plant growth material. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston

VEG-03 K and VEG-03 L will both use the standard method of seeds planted into plant pillows on Earth. VEG-03 K will bring a new crop to the ISS – Amara mustard.

“Also known as Ethiopian kale, the researchers at Kennedy have nicknamed it “steak plant” because it has a strong umami flavor. Amara mustard is a dark leafy green and contains a lot of important nutrients, like vitamins C and K. It was tested and developed for two years at Kennedy before it was approved for testing in microgravity on the space station.”

NASA

Amara mustard is a particular variety of Brassica carinata. It’s also known as Ethiopian mustard/cabbage or Abyssinian mustard/cabbage. It’s most recognisable name is probably Texsel Greens, which refers to a variety bred for temperate climates.

And last but not least, VEG-03 L will be the second test of ‘Extra Dwarf’ pak choi, a short and crisp leafy green that contains as much vitamin C as an orange. It was one of two crops selected through experiments conducted by students participating in the Fairchild Growing Beyond Earth Challenge – a collaboration between NASA and Miami’s Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. NASA reasoned that if a crop can grow well in a hundred different classrooms, it must be robust and a good candidate for space! 

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

Back on Earth, NASA has just selected five new research projects to develop improved crop habitats for space. To enable a sustained human presence on the Moon and beyond, NASA wants new spaceflight-based agriculture systems with “an improved water/nutrient delivery system and automated plant-spacing approaches for growing multiple generations of crop plants in spaceflight.”

“These are two key elements for developing plant habitats that are compatible with the microgravity condition of spaceflight and limited available space for crop plant production in spacecraft and lunar surface human habitats.”  

And NASA has also released a NASA Research Announcement (NRA) titled “Space Technology Research, Development, Demonstration, and Infusion-2020 (SpaceTech-REDDI-2020)”. It includes a section on “Advanced Plant/Food Production Technologies for Space Exploration”, with the goal of growing plants as a source of food for space exploration missions. It highlights several areas of research of interest, including:

  • Selection, breeding, or genetic engineering of dwarf or short stature crops with a high ratio of edible to total biomass.
  • Improved photosynthetic efficiencies, including genetic modification and horticultural improvements for light capture, more efficient energy conversion of light, efficient crop canopy. architectures, and improved carbon capture and conversion
  • Advanced methods for remotely sensing the status of plants in controlled environments of space to assess their overall health, growth, performance, and plant stress. 
  • Identification and use of beneficial microbes for increasing crop growth, yield, improve food safety, and resilience to stress. 

And if you fancy being one of the space gardeners testing out those new systems, NASA is currently recruiting the next class of astronauts. Only US citizen need apply. 

Researchers at the Open University in Milton Keynes are learning to “live off the land” in a different way. They’re experimenting with moon dust collected by Neil Armstrong, using it to produce water. New techniques they have developed are finding much higher concentrations of water in some rocks than were evident in the original investigations.

“The production of water, either from frozen deposits at the lunar poles or generating water from the rocks themselves, will be the first step to enable such long-term space exploration missions.”

PhD student Hannah Sargeant

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has an ambitious Mars 2117 Programme, which aims to establish human colonies on Mars by 2117. (And 45% of the country’s national space sector is made up of women.) as part of the programme, the UAE is currently recruiting Emiratis to take part in their first analog mission, at the Scientific International Research in Unique Terrestrial Station (SIRIUS) in Russia. The UAE Analog Mission#1 is designed to study the effects of isolation and confinement on human psychology, physiology and team dynamics.

“The MBRSC is leaving no stones unturned in developing Emirati capabilities and technologies that will be instrumental in our ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. Analog missions play a key role in developing new mindsets and technologies that are critical for future missions, and effectively, for all of humanity.”

Yousuf Hamad AlShaibani, Director-General of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC)

And I have just discovered the existence of Habitat Marte, the first Martian analog site in Latin America. It includes a BioHabitat greenhouse that uses aquaponics, growing fish and vegetables together. Habitat Marte is in Brazil, and so the blog is in Portuguese, but there’s a little bit about the project in English on Medium. (If an arid region of Brazil sounds a bit too warm for you, then you could always do your astronaut training in Iceland instead.)

Habitat Marte is also the reason I have now changed my job title to Space Plant Scrutator:

And I’ll leave you this week with the warm welcome NASA astronaut Christina Koch received when she got home after nearly a year in space! GoffW is taking a break next week, but will be blasting off again 6 March.