Just like in the science fiction TV series Firefly, fresh food is very rare in space because vegetables and fruits need to be carried from the earth. Once in space, perishable foods have a shelf life (same as on Earth) and need to be eaten as soon as possible. However, with the NASA's plant growth box called Veggie, this situation will start to change.
As mission time gets longer, NASA wants to ensure that astronauts can eat fresh food, and astronauts can grow their own fruits and vegetables. There are two reasons behind this. NASA Veggie researchers say it provides nutrition and psychological comfort to astronauts and helps researchers understand which types of plants grow best in microgravity environments.
To date, most of the crops grown in specialized growth tanks are lettuce called "Outredgeous" red romaine lettuce. But this situation is about to change. The dragon spacecraft will send four new plants to the International Space Station: "Dragon Cavalry" lettuce, "extra dwarf" cabbage, "red Russian" kale and "wasabi" mustard. A total of 18 plant “cushions” will enter the vegetable growth box.
This task, known as VEG-03G, H, I, is the result of a collaboration between NASA and Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. The reason for choosing these plant varieties is that they are different from the previous romaine lettuce, rich in vitamins B1, C and K, and potassium.
Human research programs consider these nutrients to be important because they will decline over time in packaged foods that astronauts usually eat. Before eating, astronauts' food is usually stored on the space station for several months, so it is beneficial to supplement the nutrients with fresh food. Researchers say this will ensure that astronauts get all the key nutrients they need.
Smith explained at the same press conference: "As NASA plans for future deep space exploration missions, the nutritional supplements of fresh foods and the psychological impact of planting plants become crucial. There are Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden students. Engagement is exciting. These students have been experimenting with these long-term experiments throughout the semester, showing that they have the toughness they need to become scientists."
Why are algae selected?
Scientists will explore whether future algae can be used to feed astronauts or to make raw materials for paper or plastic.
Researchers say algae are very efficient at producing energy through photosynthesis under low-intensity light conditions, making it ideal for growing in space.
Algae can also be used as a bio-based material (meaning that the plant can be used to make materials such as plastics and paper). The researchers explained that environmental stresses (such as microgravity) can stimulate epigenetic changes in algae. These processes can sometimes produce very useful compounds, such as antioxidants, and can even be used to help reduce radiation.
However, one major problem is the growth of algae. The biggest problem with algae growing in space is that most algae species grow fastest in liquids, but the liquid in space is different from the ground.
Settles told the media, "We are trying to domesticate algae into plants suitable for space growth."
As part of this research, which is the first non-NASA payload to utilize the Veggie growth chamber, the astronauts will try to grow several algae in the growth chamber. Settles said the team wanted to see algae growing in porous plastic bags that would be placed in growth bins on the International Space Station. Live algae samples will eventually be returned to Earth via this dragonfly. The team will research and analyze strains to understand which types of algae are best suited to the microgravity environment.
“We will grow algae in breathable plastic bags. For more than 50 years, the laboratory has been growing algae in glass flasks. In plastic bags, they grow much more slowly than in flasks,” says Settles.
In this experiment, scientists will identify genes that are associated with faster growth; researchers hope this will help them design algae for mass production in space. Researchers say that on the planet, corn is one of the most productive crops in the world today, but it does not “grow well” in space due to limitations in light and space. Algae, on the other hand, can grow in smaller containers while helping to consume more carbon dioxide.
Settles said there is not much research on how algae adapt to microgravity, so he and his team hope to learn a lot from this research.
The Dragonship also sent another scientific research facility to the International Space Station to explore how to grow rhubarb in a large space environment.