Astronauts will water a series of lettuce seeds and turn on special LED lights Wednesday to begin the next round of vegetable production on the International Space Station. Known as Veggie, the experiment is aimed at validating the plant growth chamber and equipment developed to grow plants in weightlessness. It is the second phase of research performed a year ago that saw lettuce grow in similar conditions. The problem then was that enough water did not reach the growing plants. Working with scientists from Kennedy, where the research team is located, astronauts intervened to water the plants directly and the lettuce recovered, then flourished.
This time, researchers want to see whether modifications to the watering protocols for the water reservoir and “pillows” create and maintain a column of water for the growing plants. Astronauts will still have to water the pillows holding the seeds. In a week, the lettuce plants will be thinned to allow the biggest and strongest more room and resources to get larger. It will take approximately 28 days to complete the experiment, depending on growth. The astronauts will even get to eat half of the crop as they orbit Earth. The other half will be returned to Earth to be studied.
The implications off the Earth and on the Earth could be immense. For future astronauts speeding away from home on missions to deep space and journeys to Mars, fresh-gown vegetables, even in small amounts, can provide valuable nutrients. For farming on Earth, the techniques developed to make plants grow better in space may be used to grow plants more efficiently on our planet with less water and fertilizer and in smaller volumes.