NASA System Allows Astronauts To Grow Vegetables Without Gravity
April 28, 2014

NASA System Allows Astronauts To Grow Vegetables Without Gravity

[ Watch the Video: ScienceCasts - A New Form Of Life Takes Root On The ISS ]

Gerard LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

In a weightless environment, growing plants and vegetables is quite difficult -- soil and water will rise and the plant’s roots cling to whatever it can grab a hold of. This is what the astronauts face aboard the International Space Station (ISS) when trying to grow plants. According to NASA, this challenge has been met with a new system to grow plants without gravity.

SpaceX-3 left Cape Canaveral on April 18, 2014 with a system on board that could possibly solve the dilemma of gardening without gravity. “We call it 'Veggie'. It's a plant growth chamber designed to make gardens thrive in weightlessness,” Gioia Massa, of the Kennedy Space Center, said in a statement.

This project was developed by a science team led by Massa. “Our first crop will be a variety of lettuce called 'Outredgeous’ [and] it is delicious,” Massa said.

The plant is grown in a ‘plant pillow’ using a wick to guide the water to the plant and act as a gardening stake. “Basically, these are bags of 'space dirt' and slow-release fertilizer. Wicks inserted into the bags draw water into the soil where it cannot float away,” project manager Trent Smith from the Kennedy Space Center said.

“The wicks are where we glue the seeds. We have to be very careful to orient the seeds so that roots grow 'down' into the soil and shoots pop out of the bag,” Massa added.

Above the pillows are an array of LED lights acting as the sun to initiate photosynthesis and give the shoots a direction to grow. Inside the plant chamber are bellow-like walls that expand giving the plant room to grow.

The system uses a mixture of red and blue light which is the color of light plants use mainly for photosynthesis. Green light can also be switched on to produce white light for a better effect.

In addition to the astronauts receiving fresh home grown vegetables, having plants aboard allows “astronauts to form a connection to living things...  There could be a huge psychological benefit,” Massa said.

The veggie system arrived at the ISS on April 20 and the first crop should be ready to harvest in late May; but before the astronauts can eat the lettuce, it needs to be tested for safety.

“First, we have to bring the lettuce home for analysis,” to find out if it is safe to eat and if any bacteria is growing on the leaves. “These are some of the questions we'll be looking at. If everything checks out, future crops may be eaten,” Massa explains.

“Veggie will provide a new resource for U.S. astronauts and researchers as we begin to develop the capabilities of growing fresh produce and other large plants on the space station. Determining food safety is one of our primary goals for this validation test,” Massa said in a NASA statement earlier this month. “The internal growing area is 11.5 inches wide by 14.5 inches deep, making it the largest plant growth chamber for space to date.”

“I am thrilled to be a member of the Veggie and Veg-01 team and proud of all the work we have done to prepare for flight. Our team is very excited to see the hardware in use on the space station,” Massa said.

This project could open the door for “neat payloads” in the future with the veggie unit once NASA learns more about food safety of the crops grown in space.