Space Station starts yet another horticultural project

Dec. 27, 2021
Merry Christmas, astronauts! NASA sends up LEDs and Petri plates to grow and study edible roots and shoots in the less-than-optimal environment of space, where people still need to eat.

If you looked up to the skies on Christmas Eve, it’s possible you caught a glimpse of Rudolph and the crew. But depending on where you were in the world, there’s a far greater chance that you spotted the International Space Station (ISS).

And if you’re reading this article, we can assume that you have at least a marginal interest in LED lighting. So whether or not the ISS came into your field of vision amid the eggnog and the present wrapping, it might warm your heart to know that last week NASA delivered an early Christmas present to the world’s highest-altitude orbiting science lab: A brand-new plant growing system complete with — you guessed it — LED grow lights.

The new gear is designed to examine the early stages of plant growth in the microgravity of space, looking specifically at seeds, roots, and shoots in rectangular Petri plates.

“This understanding could contribute to the design of plants better able to withstand adverse environmental conditions, including long-duration spaceflight,” NASA explains on its website.

Like the other onboard horticultural experiments (see the list below), one of the intentions is to learn more about how to cultivate edibles that would feed people on future missions. As NASA puts it, “The space environment is not optimal for plant growth.”

The latest project will specifically examine how regulatory RNA and molecular mechanisms sense and respond to the unfamiliar space environment.

It includes several modules provided by space biotechnology firm Techshot, called Phytofuge modules. Each Phytofuge holds three Petri plates. LED lighting shines on the plates 16 hours a day, for 10–12 days. NASA did not elaborate on the brightness or the spectral content. The cycle includes 8 hours of daily darkness, a setup that simulates long day conditions. After the 10–12 days, astronauts store the dishes in the ISS’ Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer, until they are returned to Earth for analysis.

The whole setup goes by the name “Plant RNA Regulation Redux in Multi Variable Platform (MVP-Plant-01).”

NASA delivered the kit via the privately-contracted SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft on Wednesday. Dragon docked while the ISS was 260 miles over the South Pacific Ocean. It arrived bearing other experimental goodies as well. Among them were a handheld bioprinter that uses a person’s skin to form tissue for bandages; mechanisms for testing crystallization of monoclonal antibodies used in cancer treatment; blood and saliva collection devices to help study the virulence of pathogens in space; and a manufacturing device for making alloys — some researchers thinks that space is a superior environment for making strong superalloys.

The bounty even included experimental Tide laundry soap from Procter & Gamble that could potentially eliminate even the toughest of space stains and eventually help earthlings keep their clothes clean.

That’s something to ponder when you spill the red wine over your brand new Christmas shirt this festive season.

Happy Holidays, LED-ites!

More high-flying horticulture

NASA examining psychological benefits of growing plants on Space Station

The latest Space Station horticultural project taps 'just regular light'

LEDs shine on radishes aboard International Space Station

Space Station astronauts get right to work on horticultural LEDs

Meanwhile in space, astronaut tinkers with horticultural lighting

MARK HALPER is a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).

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About the Author

Mark Halper | Contributing Editor, LEDs Magazine, and Business/Energy/Technology Journalist

Mark Halper is a freelance business, technology, and science journalist who covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles. Halper has written from locations around the world for TIME Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, CBS, Wired, and many others. A US citizen living in Britain, he cut his journalism teeth cutting and pasting copy for an English-language daily newspaper in Mexico City. Halper has a BA in history from Cornell University.