Given that astronauts on the International Space Station needs regular resupply of “freeze-dried cuisine,” will their ability to successfully grow their own food allow them to better explore space?
By: Ringo Bones
One primary setback of our inability to be better space explorers is out inability to grow our own food in our current self-contained space habitats, hopefully this will all change once a British astronaut’s scientific experiments display promising results. When British astronaut Tim Peake’s request for British schoolchildren to help him with one of his scientific experiments got press coverage back in January 29, 2016 could not only rekindle school kids’ interest in science around the world but has the potential to solve one of the most intransigent logistical problems faced by astronauts on the International Space Station. Astronaut Tim Peake wants UK pupils to plant rocket seeds – also known as Eruca sativa, an annual plant that is also edible – using seeds that have been in orbit with him and compare their growth with rocket plant seeds that have stayed on Earth.
The study will help find ways to grow food in space which will be essential if humans want to successfully travel to distant planets. In his message, the European Space Agency (Esa) astronaut explains that he will be sending more than a million seeds back to Earth in a month’s time. These seeds had been exposed to the weightless conditions as long as he is in the International Space Station. Tim Peake says: “this experiment will aim to see if microgravity can affect the growth mechanism in seeds.” Which might as well, given that our current space-faring vehicles are not yet equipped with artificial gravity mechanisms that can effectively mimic planet Earth’s surface gravity.
The project is being run by the Royal Horticultural Society and the UK Space Agency. The seeds will be distributed to up to 10,000 schools. Pupils will compare the growth of weightlessness exposed “space seeds” with others that have remained on Earth – which will be designated as the control. This comparison has never been made on this scale, according to Dr. Alistair Griffiths, the scientific director of the Royal Horticultural Society. Even though astronaut Tim Peake and the Royal Horticultural Society’s “space seed experiment” may seem the first ever to most people, the United States’ NASA did a similar experiment back in the 1980s.
Then popularly referred to as “The Great Tomato Seed Experiment” back in 1984, NASA launched the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) aboard the Space Shuttle. LDEF carried 57 experiments, including one specifically designed to be performed by American students. It was then known as the Space Exposure Experiment Developed for Students – or SEEDS – consists of 12.5 million Rutgers tomato seeds that remained in space for almost six years. The LDEF, together with the 12.5 million tomato seeds were later returned to Earth aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia during mission STS-32. Back then over 40,000 educators with 4 million students in 150,000 classrooms across the United States participated in growing the tomato seeds carried aboard the LDEF after being exposed to weightless conditions – and increased cosmic radiation – for almost six years.