The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that – as part of the “Veggie” experiment – it has started growing Zinnia flowers on the International Space Station. In the future this experiment may help astronauts grow things like vegetables and fruits in space.
This will be the first time NASA has ever grown flowers in space, and by 2017 the agency hopes to grow other flowering plants, such as tomatoes.
As the astronauts venture past low Earth orbit (LEO) and go study Mars or some asteroids they will need to stay healthy. That is why researchers are trying to figure out exactly how living organisms behave in space through experiments with growing fresh food.
Gioia Massa, a project scientist at NASA Kennedy Space Center and payload scientist for the NASA Vegetable Production System (Veggie) said that it will be critical for astronauts to have fresh food sources available.
Astronauts have other food options – such as grilled chicken, shrimp cocktail, mashed potatoes with nuts, etc. – but most of these foods are freeze-dried to preserve them for long periods, and have to be mixed with water to make a meal.
According to Dr. Massa, fresh fruits and vegetables are sometimes present at the space station, but supplies usually run out very fast.
Last year, as part of the Vegetable Production System experiment or Veggie, the astronomers managed to grow romaine lettuce. To do so they used trays filled with water on which they placed bags of seeds in calcined clay – that provides higher levels of aeration and helps the plants grow. The plants were lit by an LED (light-emitting diode) light, and the astronauts fertilised them using an automatic release.
The quick-sprouting Zinnia flowers will grow in a similar environment, with the help of similar techniques. However, the flowers will take twice as long to grow (about 60 days) as the lettuce did. The LED light will be kept on for ten hours straight and then off for the next fourteen hours to stimulate the Zinnias to flower.
Previously, Russian astronauts grew peas and mizuna (spider mustard) aboard the Mir space station that operated in low Earth orbit from 1986 to 2001.
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