Plant transplants and microgravity: The US space agency NASA has been experimenting with growing crops at the International Space Station for long now. This is a part of research and the programme keeps being expanded with new crops being added to the experiment. The space agency is of the view that learning how to grow crops in space would aid astronauts on long-term missions like the one to Mars without them needing to carry a lot of food with them. And now, the space agency’s astronauts at the ISS have found that what was earlier a challenge could turn into a boon for growing crops in space – microgravity.
It all began when astronaut Mike Hopkins noticed that on the International Space Station, some plants were not able to thrive properly. Thus, he conducted the first-ever plant transplant within the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) of NASA. Hopkins had arrived at the space station on the SpaceX Crew-1 mission and had been tending to lettuce and mustard varieties, which were part of one of the two Veggie experiments currently ongoing. The plants were being grown in special pillows which contain clay-based growth media along with fertilisers.
Hopkins noted that while mustards were growing just fine, some varieties of lettuce were not performing so well. In two of the plant pillows in which seeds of two lettuce varieties were sown, the seeds were germinating very slowly and would not catch up by the time harvesting had to be done. Thus, he talked to the scientists running the Veggie programme on Earth, and transplanted some extra sprouts from the plant pillows that were thriving to the struggling ones on January 14.
This technique was never tried in space before because even on Earth a transplant technique at such a delicate stage is risky. But, much to everyone’s surprise, it worked!
Hopkins had transplanted ‘Red Russian’ kale and ‘Extra Dwarf’ pak choi, and the transplanted sprouts are growing at the same pace as the donor kale and pak choi.
While scientists managing the programme from Earth do not really know why some of the lettuce seeds did not sustain like it did in previous experiments, NASA said they were speculating that it had something to do with the seeds’ low tolerance for their long storage time. The seeds for this experiment had been launched back in June 2018.
NASA quoted Gioia Massa, Veggie Programme Plant Scientist, as saying that the experiment was amazing. The experiment showed not only the skills of the astronauts and how they do things with care, but it also highlighted how microgravity could make a difference. Massa also added that fluids’ behaviour was different on the ground and in space, and in this circumstance, this difference seemingly helped the plants.
Massa was working with Matt Romeyn, who is a Space Crop Production Project Specialist, and they looked at the pictures of the newly transplanted seedlings. Looking at these images, both of them were pessimistic about the survival of the transplants because of the inevitable damage the roots would have sustained, and because of the fact that such a plant would have died on Earth.
Romeyn said that in Physics/fluids-related experiments, they were used to microgravity posing problems, which made growing plants in space difficult. Which is why this exception was astonishing because microgravity was helping them grow plants better than they would on Earth. He added that this accidental experiment would be very important because it would open a lot of opportunities for the future.
Using transplant to grow crops in space will now provide scientists with flexibility in space-based crop production, and according to Massa, it would be key in space where growing volume was at a premium.
The harvest of the crops is scheduled for February 2. After Hopkins successfully harvests them, the group of astronauts aboard the ISS would eat some of the crops and the rest would be sent back to Earth for further examination.