A group of Australian school students are participating in a NASA initiative to test the feasibility of growing vegetables in space. The program, called Growing Beyond Earth, is a collaboration between NASA and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in the United States. In Australia, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria is working with the La Trobe Institute for Agriculture and Food, and Melbourne Archdiocese of Catholic Schools.
The program aims to support the NASA Artemis mission, which plans to establish a long-term presence on the Moon and send astronauts to Mars. For such ambitious goals, astronauts will need fresh food to supplement their pre-packaged diet. Space gardens could provide not only nutrition, but also psychological benefits for the crew.
The students are involved in designing and building growth habitats, planting seeds, monitoring plant growth, and collecting data. They are also learning about the challenges and opportunities of growing plants in microgravity and other extreme environments.
Misome: a leafy green that grows well in space
The students are growing a leafy green vegetable called misome, which is a type of mustard greens. Misome has been proven to grow reliably and quickly both on Earth and in space. In fact, misome was one of the first plants to be harvested and eaten by astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the NASA Vegetable Production System (Veggie).
Misome is planted in pots with growth media that match the Veggie system. The pots are placed inside a box fitted with LED lights and sensors. The box simulates the conditions of a space station, such as temperature, humidity, and light intensity. The students adjust these variables to optimize plant growth and water use.
The students also observe and record plant characteristics, such as size, color, and fitness. They measure how much biomass is produced and how much can be harvested. They also taste the plants and rate their flavor and texture.
Testing other plant types for space suitability
After growing misome successfully, the students can extend their skills and knowledge by testing other plant types for their potential as space crops. So far, nearly 200 plants have been trialled by students around the world who are participating in Growing Beyond Earth. Some of the new candidate plants that have been found suitable include pak choi, cress, and kale.
The students can also compare their results with those of other schools and researchers. They can share their data and experiences through online platforms and social media. They can also communicate with NASA scientists and experts who provide feedback and guidance.
The program not only introduces students to gardening through science, but also inspires them to pursue careers in STEM fields. By participating in Growing Beyond Earth, the students are contributing to the advancement of space exploration and human settlement beyond Earth.