How to grow plants 400km above the ground

Quora is a site for posting questions to the internet. Sometimes those questions get answer. For example Robert Frost, who has trained astronauts for the International Space Station, has answered the question: How are plants growing in the ISS?

Gravity is not the only difference between the Earth environment and the ISS environment. In the closed atmosphere of a spacecraft, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can accumulate. VOCs need to be scrubbed from the air or seed production will suffer. There are elevated radiation levels that can cause mutations and affect growth. An experiment on Mir, that involved storing tomato seeds in space for six years found mutation rates up to 20 times higher in the space seeds than in the control seeds stored on the ground. And there are the spectral effects of using only electric lighting.

Plant in space

An autotrophic astronaut. Photo: NASA.

Because plants also respire, we have to have fans to circulate the air around the plants so that they don’t suffocate on their own exhalations. Even failed experiments can provide us with better understanding. An experiment to study plant lignin failed to produce healthy plant materials but taught us more about providing effective air movement.

You can read more at Quora.

About Alun Salt

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

One thought on “How to grow plants 400km above the ground

  1. In fact, I think some of the most up-to-date and current, rigorous, research on plants in space was published no less than 30 years ago in Annals of Botany: http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/54/supp3.toc Annals of Botany 54: supplement 3, November 1984. Most subsequent work has been carried out in rather sub-optimal conditions, controls (ie a ground-based identical capsule, including atmosphere control/lots of plastics/hot electronics etc. as in orbit – this is pointed out in the blog commentary above) are notably often lacking, and interpretation heads towards the gung-ho rather than world-class science.

    As my father wrote in the Introduction to the 1984 issue, “The papers in this Supplement provide a comprehensive conspectus of the research on plants under the conditions of space flight conducted in recent years under the auspices of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA, and in addition they offer documented reviews of the parallel work on plants carried out in the course of the Soviet space-flight programme. Collectively they are unique in providing, for the first time, ready access for botanists to the results from an area of research many have regarded as esoteric and outside their range of interests – and the literature of which has, in any event, been largely out of reach except for those actually in the field.

    “Perhaps one has to concede that the programme of botanical research so far has been no more than modestly informative, as Halstead and Dutcher remark in their introductory paper. Yet with the burgeoning appreciation of how important it now is
    to gain a better understanding of how plants react to microgravity, and the other special conditions of space-flight, and with the great improvement of experimental facilities likely to become available with the next generation of spacecraft, an explosive increase in research effort in the next decade may confidently be expected. For this to be directed towards the most rewarding targets, it is vital that a broad spectrum of plant scientists should be aware of the opportunities, and that those with specially pertinent expertise should be available for consultation and advice. It is for these reasons that the Annals of Botany Company have welcomed the opportunity of publishing this Supplement, in the knowledge that it will reach a wide range of botanists, and with the hope that it will stimulate many to consider how they might contribute in the new endeavour.”

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