In their bid to understand how plants can be grown in microgravity in space, NASA scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have successfully grown zinnia flowers, but not without some challenges which are worthy of note.
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“While the plants haven’t grown perfectly,” said Dr. Gioia Massa, NASA science team lead for Veggie, “I think we have gained a lot from this, and we are learning both more about plants and fluids and also how better to operate between ground and station. Regardless of final flowering outcome we will have gained a lot.”
Starting from May 2014, NASA scientists installed the Veggie plant growth facility aboard the ISS and first tried using it to grow lettuce – a red romaine lettuce.
The two lettuce plants were lost because of the level of drought stress in the facility, but a second trial was activated in July with NASA astronaut Scott Kelly taking over the control of things. The plant grew with little difficulty and it was harvested one month later for direct consumption by the crew.
Then it was the turn of zinnia flowers.
“The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce, said Trent Smith, Veggie project manager. “It is more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics. It has a longer growth duration between 60 and 80 days. Thus, it is a more difficult plant to grow, and allowing it to flower, along with the longer growth duration, makes it a good precursor to a tomato plant.”
Growing the zinnia plants presented some little problems. Just two weeks into growth, the astronauts observed that water seeped out of the wicks – the flaps containing the seed. Water overflowed the plants, and the scientists soon noticed the process of guttation – the internal building of pressure which forces water to come out of the leaves of the plants.
This happens when the plant is within a highly humid environment. It was also observed soon after that the leaves of the zinnia plant was bending downward, seen to be a result of flooding in its roots.
“After observing the guttation and more significant amounts of free water we decided to see about toggling the Veggie fan from low to high,” said Smith. “We had evidence indicating reduced air flow through the internal Veggie facility volume, and needed to toggle the fan to high to dry things out. When you have high humidity and wet surfaces, leaves start dying, and become prime real estate for mold to grow.”
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly contacted ground support and after some going back and forth, he was asked to handle the plant problem given that he is there in person and can personally see how the zinnia plant is doing.
“This is perfect – he has the helm,” Smith said. “We turned over care to Scott. He’s seen the lettuce, he’s got all the tools he needs, so we just provided him quick guidelines to understand the zinnias.”
With all the support that Kelly could get, he set to work on the space plant and within a few weeks noticed that they had started to respond to treatment, even blossoming in the event. Kelly thinks this is good for space since NASA still has it in mind to go to Mars, a mission that might necessitate growing one’s food in space.
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The success that the NASA team has achieved with the zinnia plant gladdens the ground support team, and points the way to Mars with the ability of astronauts to possibly grow their own food over there.