Microgravity was always a hurdle in trying to cultivate plants aboard the ISS. But astronomers find out that it could be a turning point for growing crops in space.

Romaine lettuce
(Photo: Jamain / Wikimedia Commons)
Romaine lettuce, in a vegetable garden in Belgium.

Plants and Space

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been experimenting with cultivating crops abroad the International Space Station for years now. The longtime space research program has steadily been expanding with new crop experiments. In December of 2020, astronaut Kate Rubins and her team could harvest radishes aboard the ISS.

Today, astronauts aboard the ISS have figured out that what originally was a challenge, Microgravity could turn into a boon for space crops.

When Mike Hopkins, an ISS astronaut, first noticed that some plants could not thrive properly in microgravity. Hence, he conducted the first-ever recorded plant transplant within the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) of NASA.

Hopkins first arrived at the ISS on the SpaceX Crew-1 and has been tending to mustard varieties and lettuce, which were part of two Veggie experiments. Both plants were grown in special pillows that contain clay-based growth mediums with fertilizers.

He noted that while mustards grew fine, varieties of lettuce were unable to perform well. In two plant pillows, seeds of two lettuce varieties were germinating slower and couldn't catch up to harvest time. 

Thus, on January 14th, Hopkins transplanted sprouts from thriving pillows to pots that were struggling. The technique has never been tested on the ISS because the technique at that stage of the plant cycle would be risky on Earth. To everyone's surprise, the plant transplant worked.

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Red Russian Kale and Extra Dwark pak choi were transplanted and continue to grow.

While scientists overseeing the program on Earth are unsure why some lettuce seeds weren't sustained in the previous experiments, NASA officials speculate that it was due to the seed's low tolerance for long storage time.

The experiment shows that ISS astronauts were skilled and that microgravity could make a difference. Gioia Massa, scientists in the Veggie program, added that fluid's behavior was different than what is observed on the ground.

In collaboration with Matt Romeyn, a Space Crop Production specialist, Massa examined the images of the newly transplanted seedlings. Both were pessimistic in the plants' survival considering the damage the roots would have sustained upon transplant, adding the fact that onEarth, these plants would have died.

Using transplant to cultivate crops in space now provides scientists with more flexibility in space-based crop productions and may be the key to growing volumes of plants in space.

The harvest for the transplanted is scheduled for February 2, 2021. After Hopkins successfully harvests the plants, some astronauts would be eaten aboard the ISS while the rest would be sent to Earth for further examination and study.

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