Space gardening: NASA plans to go green in space

Scientists believe that artificial lights and fans might replicate the source of natural sun and wind
Scientists believe that artificial lights and fans might replicate the source of natural sun and wind

New Delhi : Imagine greenery in space; the floating seeds, some water droplets and flower pots hanging uncontrolled without gravity in the space. It’s quite interesting. Isn’t it! Well, NASA has decided to introduce space gardening which may be helpful for astronauts who need to feed themselves during their mission to the Moon, Mars or other planets that may last for months or years. Scientists believe that artificial lights and fans might replicate the source of natural sun and wind.

Astronauts, during their trip to space, carry freeze-dried foods which include necessary nutrients, like vitamins C and K. However, the vitamins break down over-time and astronauts are increasingly weak to infections, poor blood clotting, cancer and heart disease. To help feed the astronauts during their mission, US space agency has approached professional botanists and novice gardeners, some  high school students to seek advices which are practical. "There are tens of thousands of edible plants on Earth that would presumably be useful, and it becomes a big problem to choose which of those plants are the best for producing food for astronauts," explained Carl Lewis, director of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, which is leading the effort. "And that is where we come in."

The botanical garden in Miami has identified 106 plant varieties that might grow well in space, The list includes hardy cabbages and leafy lettuces. They have enlisted 15,000 student botanists from 150 schools to grow plants in space-like conditions in their own classrooms. The four-year project is about midway through, and is paid for by a $1.24 million grant from NASA. Using trays fixed with lights that imitate the grow boxes used in space, participants must tend to the plants and record data on their progress, which will eventually be shared with NASA. "We're not using typical gardening equipment," said Rhys Campo, a 17-year-old high school student who tried her hand at growing red romaine lettuce this year. "We have setups that are a lot more high-tech."

However, some plants get over-watered, some classrooms are hotter or colder than others, and holiday breaks may leave the grow boxes unattended. In Campo's class, the lettuce dried up, and students were unable to taste it. Such shortcomings have turned out to be an unexpected but helpful as a part of the project, said NASA plant scientist Gioia Massa. "If you have a plant that does well in all that variability, chances are that plant will do well in space," she told AFP.

Astronauts living at the space station, 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth have faced failures while gardening in orbit, too. The first moveable growing box for space, equipped with LED lights, called Veggie, was tested at the orbiting outpost in 2014. Some of the lettuce didn't germinate, and some died of drought. But, despite of failures, the astronauts kept trying, and finally took their first bite of NASA-approved space-grown lettuce in 2015.

Now, there are two Veggie grow boxes at the ISS, along with a third, called the Advanced Plant Habitat. The food being grown is only occasionally harvested, and amounts to just a leaf or two per astronaut, but it's worth it, said NASA astronaut Ricky Arnold, during a live video downlink with students at Fairchild last month. "The textures of food are all kind of very similar," he said of the freeze-dried fare available on board the ISS. "When we are able to harvest our own lettuce here, just having a different texture to enjoy is a really nice diversion from the standard menu."

Some of the student-tested vegetables dragoon lettuce and extra dwarf pak choi is expected to launch in upcoming months. By next year, tomatoes could be on the menu.

Besides, NASA scientists are looking for possibility of robotic space gardening, to automate the process so crew can focus on other tasks. "The psychological benefits can be important for astronauts," said NASA research scientist Trent Smith. "The thing that the students learn is that making mistakes is okay," said JoLynne Woodmansee, a teacher at BIOTech High School in Miami. "The whole process of science is all about building. You can't learn something new without making a mistake."