Astronaut food: growing vegetables for the International Space Station

Astronaut food: growing vegetables for the International Space Station
Meal time on the International Space Station © Nasa

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) is conducting tests for growing vegetables as astronaut food on the International Space Station.

NTNU have developed high-tech planters and are growing vegetables on Earth as a test for future astronaut food to be consumed on the International Space Station. In 2021, beans will be grown in space.

Astronaut food: what is currently consumed in space?

The longest stays at the International Space Station have been six months, but people travelling to Mars will have to be prepared to stay in space for at least a year. Currently, astronaut food consists of freeze-dried and vacuum-packed foods only.

The European Space Agency plans to build a lunar base in 2030 as a stopover on the way to Mars. NASA’s plan is to fly directly to Mars with 2030 as the target landing date.

The importance of growing vegetables for astronauts

Silje Wolff, a plant physiologist at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space (CIRiS), which is part of NTNU Social Research, said: “The dream of every astronaut is to be able to eat fresh food – like strawberries, cherry tomatoes or anything that’s really flavourful. Someday that will certainly be possible. We envision a greenhouse with several varieties of vegetables.”

Speaking about the implications of this, Wolff added: “Astronauts struggle with having little appetite. They often lose weight. Addressing the psychological aspect of eating something fresh is one of our goals. Vacuum-packed food doesn’t really remind you of food. Having something fresh that triggers the appetite and the right receptors in the brain is important.”

Growing space food in high-tech planters

Wolff explained: “We found that plants can, in a way, ‘smell’ the amount of nutrients available to them. When the nitrogen concentration is very low, the plant will absorb more water and thus more nitrogen until it reaches an optimal level. The plant has a mechanism that turns on when the nitrogen level is adequate. Then it adjusts both nitrogen and water absorption down.”

Wolff found that the plants can “smell” or detect how much nutrition is available when she ran experiments in climate-regulated growth chambers in the Netherlands. © Silje Wolff, NTNU Social Research (CIRiS)

All of the tests on Earth have now been carried out and the next step is to grow beans in space. This will allow researchers to observe the effect of zero gravity on plants’ ability to transport water and absorb nutrients, which cannot be simulated on Earth.

The beans will be placed in a centrifuge to sprout and grow in the space station. The centrifuge is rotated to create different amounts of gravity.

Wolff has also completed an experiment involving growing lettuce for space. The lettuce was planted in artificial soil made from lava rock, with the goal that the plants grow directly in water that is supplemented with plant nutrients.

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