NASA planning to grow its first fruit in space
The American space agency is planning to send Española chili pepper plants (Capsicum annuum), to the International Space Station in November this year.
According to Jacob Torres, a horticultural scientist at NASA, "We can build all the rockets we want to go to Mars, but it won't work unless we have food to eat.”
A trip from Earth to Mars will take at least 6 months. Astronauts are expected to stay on the red planet for one year. The total duration stands at two years, so it’s very difficult to carry food for that duration. The option left is growing vegetables and fruits on the planet.
NASA is planning to send its first fruit, Española chili pepper plants (Capsicum annuum), to the International Space Station in November this year.
This will be the first fruit grown by US astronauts in space. A plant physiologist Ray Wheeler said, "We were also looking for varieties that don't grow too tall, and yet are very productive in the controlled environments that we would be using in space."
Why Española chili pepper?
Astronauts have expressed their desire for more spicy and flavoured foods. Española chili peppers are very high in vitamin C and have a hot flavour; this fulfills both the need for taste and nutrition.
Also, Española peppers grow at high altitudes, have short growing periods, and can easily be pollinated.
But this is not the first time humans are growing plants in space. In 1992, the crew of Soviet Salyut 7 spacecraft grew the model plant Arabidopsis. Russian cosmonauts have been producing vegetables since 2003. But the US planted its first plant, lettuce, in 2015.
Humans have also been successful in growing lettuce, Swiss chard, radishes, Chinese cabbage, and peas. Talking biology, peas are botanically part of a fruit. And it has been grown in the Russian segment of the ISS. But this will be the first fruit planted by US/NASA in the International Space Centre.
Problems faced while growing plants in space:
Generally, it's difficult for plants to grow under microgravity. Plants are used to Earth's gravity that helps in orienting themselves. But scientists have used special techniques and lights to help these plants and show them the up and down direction.
In 2018, NASA sent a new self-sufficient growth system called The Advanced Plant Habitat to the ISS. This system along with The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) will help the crew grow fresh food.
Researchers are working to increase the variety of crops in space. This will also help in getting a wide variety of nutrients and vitamins for the astronauts.