Beating Stray Light

Stray light—those nasty reflections off our Space Station windows—can ruin the aesthetics of nighttime imagery and viewing. Reflected light from our numerous control panels and computer screens is hardly noticeable until you closely inspect your pictures, typically after returning to Earth when there is no possibility for a retake. The reflections are aggravated by the design of our windows: four layers of glass resulting in eight parallel mirrored surfaces. For photographers, they can create a haunting tunnel of colored blotches that project off to infinity, like being in a house of mirrors.

To eliminate these reflections requires attention to many small details. Any source of low-level light has to be masked. Even when this is done, light coming from the adjacent Node 3 and Node 1 modules is enough to ruin a nighttime sequence of images. Then there’s the toilet, close to our windowed Cupola, which, when occupied, spills sufficient rays to spoil an image. I have found that it is possible to train your crew to use it in the dark.

Expedition 31 Flight Engineer Don Pettit

As a final measure, I spread a cloth baffle across the base of the Cupola with an opening sufficient only for my head. Like a flattened projection of a turtleneck sweater, this final barrier effectively excludes errant rays. Equipped this way, as soon as your eyes become adjusted for night, both your view and your images will be spectacular.

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Black Spot

Venus' transit across the sun

June 6
Last night we observed a little black spot on the Sun. We stayed up all night to record this with our cameras. Of course, the sun was visible so it was not really night, but for our internal clocks, we should have been dormant. Last night was also unusual because our orbit now follows the day-night shadow cast on Earth by the Sun. From our orbit we are continuously sunlit and have perpetual day. On one side of our spaceship it is night; on the other it is day. This is good for us plants. Gardener and his crewmates observed the little black spot move across the Sun through a special filter. Sunflower, Broccoli, and I can look directly at the sun with no filter. We all were smiling.

June 7
We have noticed that there are no bees on our spacecraft to visit Sunflower’s blossom. I wonder how they would fly in weightlessness. Gardener is so strange; he is brushing Sunflower’s blossom with his toothbrush. Does he think Sunflower has teeth?

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May 24
Tomorrow we capture the Dragon. I can tell that Gardener is focused on that task. We have made preparations; the place with all the windows is set up for flying the dragon catcher. There is a special control panel on a long cable with large brightly colored push buttons. I thought this was something you would give a toddler to play with. I am told it is used to control Dragon. Gardener played one more set of computer games. He has played this game over 500 times now. He gave us all a long smell and went to bed. Broccoli, Sunflower, and I took the night watch so everyone else could sleep.

May 26
We now have a Dragon. There was much excitement during yesterday’s capture and we all felt a certain level of relief to know he was now onboard. There were only a few problems that we worked out with the help from the Big Gardener on the radio. This is teamwork at its best; plants and animals all working together for a common mission objective. We opened Dragon’s mouth and looked inside. He brought us all kinds of treasures, safely kept in his belly.

SpaceX Dragon

May 31
We released Dragon today. The treasures he brought were traded for some of our goods and then he went on his way. I like this concept; Dragon brings us things we can use in exchange for things we have made on orbit. The things we make on orbit are samples from our scientific experiments. They have great value to the Big Gardener on Earth. Explorers use to bring back silk and spices. Now we bring back scientific samples, crystals, blood, and urine. Within these goods lay spoils more valuable that plundered gold for they are the key to advancing our knowledge. Sometimes we give Dragon broken spacecraft parts that he will repair and bring back on his next visit. Before we closed the hatch, we placed a picture of our crew on the bulkhead. Dragon seemed anxious to go. I guess when a Dragon visits, they do not stay long.

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The Sun

May 16
Gardener is practicing taking images of the Sun. He is preparing for the Transit of Venus on June 5th. He has a special filter covering the front of a long telephoto lens so his eyes are protected. This is strange – we stare directly at the Sun without any filters. I saw some of the images. It looks like the Sun has the same brown patches that Sunflower does. I wonder if the Sun could use a treatment with BZK wipes.

Venus transit practice

May 18
We are starting to have shortages in some of our supplies. This is not unexpected; when you live on the frontier and are extracted from your normal terrestrial soil, it is expected that some items will be in short supply. But you cannot run to the store to buy things. We try to conserve and we try to notify the Big Gardener on Earth when supplies get low, but in spite of this, sometimes shortages happen. Currently we have a shortage of trash bags, disinfectant wipes, and shampoo. We have no more bags in which to put our compost. For us plants, we thrive on compost so this does not pose a problem for us, but for our animal crewmates, this is a big deal. In situations like this, you improvise. We have many spare suitcase-sized bags that protect the scientific equipment during shipment. We are now using those for storing our trash. Gardener said that when he uses the toilet, he can use one disinfectant wipe five times, thus, extending our supply until the next shipment. He keeps his hair pruned short so shampoo in not a factor. Such minor inconveniences are normal here. Gardener says shortages in these supplies are not critical (unless it is coffee.)


May 20
We saw a rare event that strikes fear in the stems of all plants. Today the sun went dark, at least for some selected locations on Earth. For us plants on orbit, it was not so scary since we remained sunlit. However, we did see this dark shadow cast on Earth and if you were a plant within that dark spot, a visceral reaction of fear would move through your vascular bundles.

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Help for Sunflower

Lyrid meteor shower

Todaywas the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower. We set up four cameras in the cupola simultaneously takingpictures.  Gardener said there wereplaces on Earth that were doing the same and all these pictures taken togetherwill make a very interesting scientific data set.  Since I had been placed next to a window, Iwas living through 16 periods of day-night every 24 hours.  Jet-lagged, I could thus stay awake duringthe night and help in the observations.

Gardenerhas been spending a lot of time playing a computer game.  His computer is near our grow light so we canwatch him.  He plays in the morningbefore works starts and in the evening after work is over.  He must find this relaxing.  The game he plays is called “Catch theDragon”.  The best part about this gameis that he does not have to put in any quarters.


Sunflowerhas brown patch.  His leaves are coveredwith dry, dark blotches.  He is nothappy.  Gardener says it looks like afungus.  I am afraid that if something isnot done we are going to lose Sunflower. The crew medical kit is designed for animals not plants so there are nomedications for this disease.  Gardeneris treating Sunflower with a disinfectant wipe that has an antibacterial agentcalled BZK (Benzalkonium chloride).  Wedo not know if this is going to work. Our spacecraft is designed for animals so life can be a struggle forplants.  On the frontier, the answers arenot found in the back of the book and sometimes you have to venture into theunknown and improvise.


TheBZK wipes seem to be helping.  Gardenerpats down Sunflower’s leaves every other day. He does this with the healthy new green ones as well.  Sunflower is beginning to smile again.  Broccoli and I seem resistant to this so heis not treating us.  

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Happy Sprout Day

April 12
We got new aeroponic bags today. They are a new design, much simpler than the old ones. One corner is cut off and then pushed inwards so it points inside the bag. This makes an opening where the water does not crawl out from capillary action. A piece of foam is placed inside to keep the sides from collapsing so the bag remains puffed up. Our root ball is squeezed through the cut corner so our roots hang inside the puffed up part of the bag. Then about 50 milliliters of water with nutrient tea is injected inside through the opening. Our roots hang mostly in the air but can grow into water if desired. We like our new bags.

new bags

April 19
Our algae friends moved with us into our new aeroponic bags so our roots are once again turning green. I sort of like these little fellows; they tickle my roots when they swim around. Our leaves are happy. It will be awhile before I am ready to bloom again.

April 20
This is so strange. I overheard my crew wishing Gardener a happy sprout day. Why would anyone want to celebrate the day they sprouted?

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What Do Dragons Eat?

root algae

April 2
Oh no, we have algae root! Our plastic potting bags, being transparent, allow our roots to be soaked in light. That does not particularly bother us but it allows for some freeloaders to make their home in the dampness of our plastic, aeroponic bags. So our planter bags are now turning green with colonies of algae. The gardener inspected a green drop of water under a microscope and saw single-celled, elongated, free-swimming algae with two flagella. They make many tiny bubbles of oxygen that stay suspended in the surrounding water. The extra oxygen makes my roots happy. How these stowaways got here is a mystery. Gardener says they were probably on our seeds. In any case, we now have some new friends. I am not certain if they are plant or animal.

root algae

April 6
I heard a rumor that a dragon is coming and the Gardener is going to catch it. He and his crewmates are spending much time preparing for this event. They practice right next to our grow light so we can watch them train. This looks like serious business. I guess when you are dealing with dragons you have to be careful. At first I was worried about having a dragon onboard but then I remembered that they only eat meat.

Dragon catchers

April 10
What is Gardener up to? He only gave us a brief glance this morning. Sunflower, Broccoli, and I are getting thirsty. Our aeroponic bags only hold about 50 milliliters of water and they are quickly drying up. He usually adds about 30 each morning. By afternoon our leaves were wilting. They do not droop under the pull of gravity like leaves on Earth plants. They simply float like pieces of green crinkled paper. Perhaps Gardener did not notice. By evening, he was shocked when he saw us. How could we dry out in only one day he said? I could tell he felt really bad. He was busy with the dragon preparations. We got watered and our leaves inflated within minutes. Even Sunflower with a scrawny ½ meter long stalk inflated his leaves in short order. It is amazing how quickly our vascular bundles can transport water to where it’s needed.


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June 8 – Diary of a Space Zucchini

Me and my “Buds” have been busy working on our mission together with our animal crewmates over the past two months.  On our mission, we have taken nearly 250,000 images, about 1/4th of that taken over the previous 11 years.  I have been faithfully making entries into my diary but due to the quantity of our image data coupled with our Ku-band radio transmission bandwidth, they have not been downlinked.  I will start downlinking my past observations over the next week or so as bandwidth allows.



Stay tuned for more chronicles from space zucchini at the start of its sprout…


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