NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins this week showed off the pak choi that he’s been cultivating aboard the International Space Station since early February.
The project isn’t simply a way to pass the time during his six-month mission aboard the orbiting outpost. He’s actually helping scientists to learn how easily the leafy green vegetable can be grown in space, and whether growing it in microgravity conditions has any effect on its health benefits.
The research is important as it will help NASA better plan upcoming crewed missions into deep space, with the agency currently eyeing Mars as a potential destination.
Stop and smell the flowers! Checking in on the Pak Choi that I've been growing on @Space_Station. This is part of Veggie – an experiment studying crop production in microgravity that could help astronauts become more self-sufficient on long-duration missions to the Moon or Mars. pic.twitter.com/GcuqqexSUK
— Mike Hopkins (@Astro_illini) March 29, 2021
Astronauts embarking on such lengthy missions won’t have enough room on board their spacecraft to carry adequate food supplies, so for the last seven years, NASA has been using the Vegetable Production System and the more sophisticated Advanced Plant Habitat to grow various foods to see what works and what doesn’t. Both systems rely on an array of LED lights that promote plant growth.
Besides ensuring that astronauts get to eat nutritious food, Hopkins has also pointed out that how space-based plants offer “a connection to Earth. The look, feel, taste, and smell all remind us of life on Earth, and that connection is good for our mental health.”
Hopkins, who has been on the ISS since November 2020 and is scheduled to return next month, added: “Even though astronauts can’t run to the supermarket for fresh produce during a two-year mission to Mars, they could float into a module that has the same smell and feel of the produce section. And that will put a smile on any astronaut’s face, making them more effective during their primary mission activities.”
The station’s current Expedition 64 crew has also been growing two crops of radishes, with one of the crops devoured by the astronauts at the end of last year.
Other related experiments saw Hopkins try out a new seed film developed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The seed film enables the lettuce to be planted in orbit instead of the regular method involving researchers on the ground planting the crops prior to their delivery to orbit. Both experiments started on January 4 and were successfully harvested in early February.
It’s hoped that astronauts on long missions will also be able to feast on comfort foods. Pizza, for example, has already been knocked together and chowed down in space, while a special space oven has also been used on the ISS to bake some tasty cookies.
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