For the first time ever, flowers are being grown on the International Space Station. The crop of choice is the Zinnia flower, a plant native to parts of North and South America. If all goes to plan, the flowers are expected to bloom just after the turn of the year.
NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren began the experiment on November 16th. The Zinnai seeds are contained within pillows, as part of the Veggie plant growth system. The Veggie system was developed by Orbital Technologies Corp. (ORBITEC) and launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in the third CRS mission in April 2014. Veggie provides lighting and nutrient delivery, but utilises the cabin environment for temperature control and as a source of carbon dioxide to promote plant growth.
Lindgren will be in charge of running the experiment. He will turn on the red, blue and green LEDs, activate the water system, and provide nutrients to the flowers. Lindgren will also be responsible for monitoring plant growth throughout the 60 day growing time, a growth time that is two times longer than that of red lettuce already grown in the Veggie system.
“Growing a flowering crop is more challenging than growing a vegetable crop such as lettuce,” said Gioia Massa, NASA's Kennedy Space Center payload scientist for Veggie. “Lighting and other environmental parameters are more critical.”
So what’s the point in all this? Well, for starters a flower has never bloomed in 0 g, so it's effects are unknown. Secondly, the process of growing a plant in space is paramount to future long-term space exploration. For a trip to Mars, astronauts would be expected to grow their own food. Already lettuce has been grown and eaten in space, but many fruits and vegetables flower in their growth cycle, so understanding how to grow flowers is very important.
"Growing the Zinnia plants will help advance our knowledge of how plants flower in the Veggie growth system, and will enable fruiting plants like tomatoes to be grown and eaten in space using Veggie as the in-orbit garden," said Trent Smith, Veggie program manager.
Researchers on Earth are hoping data collected from this experiment will give a further insight into long-duration seed stow and germination, whether pollen could cause problems, and the impacts on crew morale. This information is required for the tomato growing experiment set to begin in 2017.