The annual 2017-2018 Fairchild Challenge Growing Beyond Earth recently kicked off at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Miami. For the past three years, plant researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida have been partnering with Fairchild to create STEM-based challenges for teachers and students in the area. More than 130 middle and high school teachers participated in the opening workshop Sept. 30. Kennedy scientists Dr. Gioia Massa and Trent Smith taught teachers about food production in space and NASA’s Veggie plant growth system currently aboard the International Space Station.
Veggie is a system that allows astronauts to grow plants and crops — some of which they can eat. Veggie is an important demonstration of how NASA applies science across disciplines — in this case Space Biology to grow a healthy crop and Human Research to ensure astronauts remain healthy — to enable human space exploration.
At the end of the workshop, teachers received mini botany labs their students will use to participate in the project during the current school year. Each lab is meant to be managed like Veggie’s hardware on station. Students have to follow research protocols set forth by NASA and Fairchild while testing factors that could influence plant growth, flavor and nutrition — all so they can help NASA pick the next crops to grow for the astronauts aboard the station.
After a month of growing plants in the Advanced Plant Habitat Flight Unit No. 1, the chamber was opened and half of the yield was harvested by Kennedy Space Center payload engineers and scientists. The Arabidopsis thaliana seeds that were grown during the test are small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard that have a short lifecycle and small genome, making it an ideal plant model for research.
The harvest involved measuring pigment molecules of some of the plants with an instrument called a FluorPen, which will give the principal investigators empirical data on the health of the plants. Following those measurements, the stems and the rosettes (circular arrangement of leaves) of the plants were harvested separately, placed inside a foil packet, and then placed inside a MiniCold Bag that quickly freezes the plants. The plants will be shipped to a team at Washington State University who will examine the plants, with the goal to comprehensively understand how these plants adapt to spaceflight during the PH-01 experiment on the International Space Station later this year.
The Advanced Plant Habitat was sent to the space station in two shipments on the Orbital ATK OA-7 and SpaceX CRS-11 resupply missions. The Advanced Plant Habitat will be set up on the space station this fall and is an enclosed, closed-loop system with an environmentally controlled chamber. The habitat will use red, blue, green and broad-spectrum white LED lights and have 180 sensors to relay information back to the team at Kennedy.
Support and funding for the Advanced Plant Habitat are provided by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division.
The Advanced Plant Habitat Flight Unit No. 1 that will be used for ground testing the agency’s newest plant habitat arrived at Kennedy Space Center on July 17. Over the past couple of weeks, the unit has undergone numerous inspections and checkout procedures and is now undergoing an Experiment Verification Test. This test, started on July 27, will allow the ground team at Kennedy to run through the procedures of the future Plant Habitat 01 Mission, or PH-01, that will grow aboard the International Space Station later this year. Both the test and the actual mission will grow Arabidopsis seeds, which are small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard.
The Advanced Plant Habitat was sent to the space station in two shipments on the Orbital ATK OA-7 and SpaceX CRS-11 resupply missions. Once it is set up, it will be a fully automated facility that will be used to conduct plant bioscience research. The Advanced Plant Habitat is an enclosed, closed-loop system with an environmentally controlled chamber. The habitat will use red, blue, green and broad-spectrum white LED lights and have 180 sensors to relay information back to the team at Kennedy. The habitat is scheduled to be activated aboard the orbiting laboratory this fall, with PH-01 beginning in late October.
NASA, Orbital ATK and United Launch Alliance (ULA) are now targeting April 18 for the launch of Orbital ATK’s seventh contracted commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. ULA has developed a plan to resolve an earlier booster hydraulic issue, and is moving forward with launch vehicle processing. Both the Atlas V rocket and Cygnus spacecraft remain secure. Several tons of cargo including crew supplies and science experiments packed aboard Cygnus remain in good shape.
Today, astronaut Peggy Whitson will pull out her gardening tools once again to initiate the next crop of Chinese cabbage to be grown aboard the International Space Station. This crop will be the second Chinese cabbage and the sixth crop grown in the Veggie system. The leafy greens will be allowed to grow for two months while Whitson periodically harvests leaves for crew enjoyment as well as for science. This will be the second time a space station crew has used the cut-and-come-again harvest technique intended to increase crop yield; the technique was previously used with ’Outredgeous’ lettuce.
This time around, the gardening guidance given to Whitson was revised to reflect the need for more water that was discovered during the first growth of Chinese cabbage earlier this year. According to Veggie Project Scientist Dr. Gioia Massa, every experiment provides new information as the Veggie team continues to lay the groundwork for future long-duration plant growth systems.
“Our main goal for this VEG-03C crop is to grow the Chinese cabbage for a longer duration and to see how plants respond to the cut-and-come-again repetitive harvest technique we used last fall with the ‘Outredgeous’ lettuce,” Massa said. “We hope that, similar to the lettuce, astronauts will get to eat more Chinese cabbage over a longer duration as we test more sustainable growth practices for this crop.”
Although these Chinese cabbage seeds are the last ones currently aboard the orbiting laboratory, the Veggie team does plan to send up more seed pillows in the near future. What seeds will those pillows contain? The team isn’t certain just yet, but the scientists have been studying peppers, tomatoes and other leafy greens.
Astronaut Peggy Whitson will initiate the next round of crops to be grown aboard the International Space Station today. For the first time, a Chinese cabbage variety named Tokyo Bekana will be grown in space. The cabbage was chosen as a good candidate because it is a quick growing leafy green that is rated highly from a nutritional and taste perspective. Whitson will act as the on-orbit gardener, tending to the cabbage for about a month.
How do astronauts aboard the International Space Station get fresh oxygen for spacewalks and everyday use in the orbiting laboratory? After the space shuttle retired, NASA designed the Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System, or NORS. Once onboard, the tanks are used to fill the oxygen and nitrogen tanks that supply the needed gases to the station’s airlock for spacewalks. They are also used as a secondary method to replenish the atmosphere inside of the space station.
The tanks are fully reusable once they have been inspected after returning from space. Earlier this week, the first flight-returned NORS Recharge Tank Assembly was depressurized at Kennedy. This particular NORS tank was returned on the SpaceX CRS-9 flight after spending almost a year on station. There are currently four more tanks aboard the station that are scheduled to come down soon so they may be reused in the future.
On Monday, Dec. 5, the first of four lettuce leaf harvests from the Veg-03 ground control took place at Kennedy Space Center as researchers implemented a technique called “cut-and-come-again.” The idea is to cut a few leaves from the ‘Outredgeous’ red romaine lettuce plants about every 10 days as the remaining leaves continue to grow. Unlike the harvest conducted aboard the station last Friday where the astronauts ate the fruits of their labor, the leaves cut at Kennedy were bagged, weighed and placed in a freezer for future use.
The purpose of the ground Veggie system is to provide a control group to compare against the lettuce grown in orbit. Some of the future harvests on the station will be saved for scientific comparison once the leaves are returned to the space center. Not only will they compare the yield grown in space versus that on Earth, but researchers also will conduct food safety analysis for the “cut-and-come-again” technique to monitor the microbial load on the plant leaves to see how it changes over time.
A high fidelity test version of NASA’s Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), the largest plant chamber built for the agency, arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week. The engineering development unit arrived by truck, was offloaded and transported to a laboratory at the Space Station Processing Facility.
Inside the lab, NASA engineers, and scientists and technicians on the Engineering Services Contract will train with the test unit to learn how to handle and assemble it before the actual APH unit arrives early next year. They also will test how the science integrates with the various systems of the plant habitat.
NASA Kennedy engineers designed parts of the APH, but also fabricated the flight growth chamber, with the remaining subsystems designed and built by ORBITEC in Madison, Wisconsin. The unit is a closed-loop system with a controlled environment than can house large plants. The system will use red, green and blue LED lights, similar to the Veggie growth system that currently is on the International Space Station. The APH also has the capability of using white LEDs and infrared light. The APH will have about 180 sensors and four times the light output of Veggie.
Kennedy scientists developed the science carrier that will be inserted in the APH for plant growth experiments on the space station and the control experiments on the ground. Payload integration engineers with Jacobs, on the Test and Operations Support Contract, will help integrate the science, or seeds, into the APH. Jacobs research scientists also are providing lab space and support for the APH.
The small-scale experiment, called Plant Habitat 1 or PH01, will contain Arabidopsis seeds, small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard. PH01 and the APH unit will be delivered to the space station in 2017.
Students from Utah State University presented Eden, a plant chamber that could be operated autonomously during long-term spaceflight missions, while visiting Kennedy Space Center Nov. 7. This project is part of NASA’s eXploration Systems and Habitation (X-Hab) Academic Innovation Challenge series, and also serves as a pathfinder for the type of technology needed for future long duration missions beyond low-Earth orbit.
“The Utah State University X-HAB team did a fantastic job developing an innovative project,” commented Dr. Gioia Massa, a scientist who works on food production in space. “Their Eden X-HAB project demonstrated a very novel approach to sustaining plant growth in microgravity, with a 3-D printed substrate that could be a revolutionary way to provide water and nutrients to plants.”
Eden would make use of the 3-D printed substrate to deliver water, oxygen, and nutrients to plant roots in microgravity conditions. Students built an Eden prototype and grew plants in a 30-day test. This type of plant growth system would improve the autonomy of current plant growth systems in use aboard the International Space Station to make them more practical for limited crew time missions.