Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Space Crops

In a fun parallel growth cycle, my lettuce seedlings and the lettuce on the International Space Station have been maturing at approximately the same rate this past month. Astronaut Peggy Whitson harvested the ISS crop of Chinese cabbage on Friday, saving some leaves for eating and some for sending back to Earth for analysis. My lettuce just got big enough to transplant it into the garden containers. Unfortunately the Veggie grow container on the ISS isn't big enough to hold full-grown lettuce, so they had to stop while the plants were still small. 

My lettuce grown in my apartment on the ground
The cabbage grown in the Veggie module on the International Space Station

Plants are hard enough to grow on the ground, so why do we grow plants in space? Astronauts on several different space missions have grown, harvested, and even eaten plants they grew while in space. They have been grown for a variety of reasons. The following are just a few:

Arabidopsis, a weed with a very well mapped genome, is used for all kinds of experiments both in space and on the ground. Astronauts used this plant to study root growth in the APEX-TAGES experiment. It turns out roots don't grow down because of gravity! This meant that plants could grow perfectly well without gravity. 

Wheat was grown on the Mir space station to study the effects of space flight on future generations of plants. Wheat seeds from plants grown in space were planted and scientists found no difference between them and the control group grown and re-seeded on Earth. 

Last year Zinnias were taken to the space station and flowered, showing us that flowering plants can also be grown in space, given the right care. Astronaut Scott Kelly earned the title "autonomous space gardener" after he saved the crop from mold damage by assessing crop conditions and adjusting accordingly. Don't talk to me about space flower. I get emotional. lol. 

Space Flower, tiny pioneer for flowering plants

If we are going to go visit other planets someday we have to know how to grow healthy plants to take with us for food. Lugging enough food for a few years' stay on a faraway world is nearly impossible. Carrying seeds is less so. Sometimes I wonder if the plants wanted to go to space all along, and we're just their mode of transportation. ;) 

Back on Earth my lettuce crop needed the same things as the space plants for awhile, since it was too cold outside to grow them. They had grow lights on a timer to keep them well fed, were watered in little cups full of soil, and even had exercise. That's right- just like people need exercise to grow big and strong, so do plants! I set up a fan to blow across the seedlings for an hour or two every day to encourage their stems to grow sturdier. We jokingly called it the lettuce elliptical. 

My seedlings have their own personal gym.

All of that care has paid off. Now that the weather has warmed up enough my lettuce is outside where it can get natural sunlight, water, and breezes. On the space station... the lettuce is harvested for research. The next crop is being installed and given its first good watering under the purple-tinted LED lights. Soon there will be a second Veggie habitat installed, giving twice as much room to grow! Someday maybe we will be harvesting lettuce on Mars, boldly growing where no food has grown before.

PS: If you would like to grow plants that have grown on the International Space Station, try these varieties! They are also sold here on Earth. :) At some point I'll have a themed garden which contains only plant varieties grown in space...
- "Outredgeous Red Romane" Lettuce
- "Tokyo Bekana" Chinese Cabbage
- "Profusion" Zinnias
- Mizuna Lettuce (Unsure of exact variety)
- "Super Dwarf" wheat

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