Astronauts on board the International Space Station may soon be able to enjoy vegetables grown in orbit.
Elon Musk’s private space venture, SpaceX—the company that launched the first commercial spaceflight to the ISS in 2012—is now prepared to launch lettuce seedlings into space. Scientists and engineers hope astronauts will soon be able to maintain a vegetable farm on the ISS, providing a new source of food for crew members.
The mission was supposed to begin Monday with the launch of SpaceX’s resupply vessel, but a helium leak from the first-stage rocket forced officials to postpone the launch.
When the resupply shuttle does finally link up with the ISS, astronauts will install an oven-sized plant growth chamber. The ensuing “Veg-01” experiment will determine the feasibility and safety of growing vegetables in space. Specifically, astronauts will attempt to grow lettuce, from tiny seedlings to robust green heads. The biggest challenge here, of course, is the lack of gravity.
"With regards to water delivery in a microgravity environment, the laws of physics make this difficult because all liquids want to assume a spherical shape, which will attach to things and be moved by wicking forces," said Charlie Quincy, a research advisor at Kennedy Space Center, in a statement. "Plants will not survive if their roots are completely surrounded by liquid water, so a water delivery system had to be developed."
Accordingly, NASA contracted Orbital Technologies Corporation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, to develop a system for growing vegetables in zero gravity. They came up with Vegetable Production System, or simply “Veggie.” It uses a specialized water delivery mechanism, as well as a canopy of red, blue, and green LEDs designed to supply optimal light at different stages of growth.
But, according to Quincy, the focus of this technology is the water and nutrient supply system.
"The rooting pillow where seeds will germinate and nutrients and water will be supplied is one of the key technologies that will be tested during the initial deployment," he said. "The root pillows will be returned to Earth so microbial assays can be performed. Selected plant materials will also be returned for detailed investigations."
Interestingly, the scientific value of the study is not merely for space-based agriculture. Researchers also hope to learn a bit more about how plants grow here on Earth.
Howard G. Levine, chief scientist for the ISS Ground Processing and Research Office at the Kennedy SC, explained how the removal of gravity from scientific analysis allows researchers to more precisely study other elements that influence plant growth, such as light and nutrients.