It seems like it has been a while since I talked about plants in space, so I am devoting this week’s edition of Tendrils to them 🙂 You can catch up on my previous space-related offerings but browsing the space category of the website.
As astronauts can’t survive on freeze-dried ice cream alone (and wouldn’t want to – it’s nasty! 😉 ), there is quite a bit of research going on in how to make life in space more self-sufficient. It’s hard to get your 5-a-day when all your fruit and veg has to be delivered by Soyuz rocket!
Modern Farmer has reported on research results from scientists at Wageningen University, which suggests that vegetables grown on Martian soil won’t kill us, which is a good start. Although the potato crop has been a little disappointing, the scientists harvested more of some crops than they needed for their experiments, and so held a dinner party for sponsors and planned on selling some of their beans. You can keep up with their work on the Food for mars and moon Facebook page.
And last month NASA gave almost $1.25 million to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to fund continued collaboration between NASA scientists, the garden and students as they investigate how to feed astronauts on deep space voyages, such as those to Mars.
Meanwhile, ESA have been celebrating a decade of plant biology in space. On 4 July 2006 ESA sent a miniature greenhouse into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. They’ve been using it to investigate how plants grow in weightlessness, on the International Space Station.
I wonder whether more plants have been into space than people? I guess if you count each seed, that probably happened ages ago….
We’ve been investigating the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion for longer than ESA has been growing plants in space – it was 30 years ago (has it really been that long?) that the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred. But this year several strains of fungi that seem to be thriving, not simply surviving, in the radioactive wasteland are being sent into space to see how they get on. The research is expected to have both medical and agricultural benefits.[If I can be picky for a moment, the title on that Motherboard article (Chernobyl Microbes Are Heading to the International Space Station) is wrong – microbes are single-celled organisms, fungi are multi-celled organisms. Ergo, fungi ain’t microbes ;)]
Astronauts do some of their training underwater, because it can mimic weightlessness and also encompasses some of the challenges of the space environment. They don’t grow plants there, but apparently the US Navy is experimenting with plants on submarines, which will require similar hydroponic, climate-controlled systems to plants in space. The idea being that the military could grow some of their own fresh food whilst on deployment.
“That’s what the sailors want. That’s what they ask for,” Holman said. “Whenever you have a happy sailor, you have a productive sailor.”
I think it’s interesting to note that, despite all the problems parents face with getting their kids to eat the veggies, and the struggles we all sometimes face on getting our 5-a-day, once you take people out of an environment where fresh vegetables and fruits are plentiful and easy to get hold of, it rapidly becomes the thing that they miss most!