Houston, We Have a Pepper

Four chile pepper plants growing aboard the International Space Station in the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) bore fruit. Photo credit: NASA

Recently, the four chile pepper plants growing aboard the International Space Station in the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) bore fruit – several peppers, in fact.

Peppers developed from flowers that bloomed in the Advanced Plant Habitat on the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA

The peppers developed from flowers that bloomed over the past few weeks. Peppers are self-pollinating, and once pollination occurred, peppers started forming 24 to 48 hours later; however, not all pollinated flowers developed into peppers.

A unique feature of the APH is that it can be controlled remotely. To pollinate the flowers in orbit, the team at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center instructed APH to run its fans at variable rates to create a gentle breeze in microgravity to agitate the flowers and encourage the transfer of pollen. The space station crew also provided assistance by hand pollinating some of the flowers.

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Studies of fruit development in microgravity are limited, and NASA researchers have noted lower fruit development versus ground observations in this experiment for reasons that are not fully understood at this point. Overcoming the challenges of growing fruit in microgravity is important for long-duration missions during which crew members will need good sources of Vitamin C – such as peppers – to supplement their diets.

The average length for this type of pepper is just over three inches in ground tests. Hatch chile peppers are a mild heat pepper that starts out as green and will ripen to red over time, but it’s unknown what effect microgravity will have on the length to which they grow and their potency.

Astronauts will perform two harvests this year – one at 100 days in late October, and one at 120 days in early November. At those times, astronauts will sanitize the peppers, eat part of their harvests, and return the rest to Earth for analysis.

NASA Tests Ways to Reduce Stress in Plants Growing in Space

The Science Verification Test for NASA’s Advanced Plant Experiment-08 (APEX-08) takes place inside the Veggie growth chamber at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 6, 2020. Photo credit: NASA/Lucy Orozco

When astronauts embark on long-duration missions in the future, crews will grow food to supplement what they can bring with them. More than 20 years of continuously living and working in space aboard the International Space Station has provided many opportunities for crews and researchers to observe the challenges of growing plants in the stressful conditions of microgravity.

One experiment on NASA SpaceX’s 23rd Commercial Resupply Services mission to the space station will help determine the effect of plant stress responses to the microgravity environment. The Advanced Plant Experiment-08 (APEX-08) will grow Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant scientists routinely use for research. The study includes making genetic alterations that elicit a response in the pool of polyamines, a group of organic compounds that modulate plant responses to environmental stress.

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