Houston We Have Some Spinach

Exciting news from NASA, which this week will start a new farm in space. Or more straight-faced, a “plant growth unit” that will allow astronauts on the International Space Station to grow salad greens and small herbs. This from NASA:

This study will emphasize the focus on human habitability in space, since growing food in space may greatly improve long-duration spaceflight. Veggie can support a variety of studies used to determine how plants sense and respond to gravity. Astronauts will harvest the plants for further investigation.

NASA has experimented with growing crops in space before. But this device, which is about the size of a microwave oven, will raise vegetables on a very specific cycle—yielding fresh crops every 28 days. The goals behind it are two-fold. For one, fresh veggies in space will offer nutrition and comfort to orbiting astronauts nostalgic for solid ground. Although since NASA isn’t in the business of simply making astronauts happy, the bigger research aim is to experiment with growth in space. The conditions in zero-gravity—without soil, natural fertilizer, or water—won’t ever be the future way humans produce food on a large scale unless our species seriously wrecks the planet. Instead, for future people in orbit or on long missions to Mars and asteroids, growing nutritious food safely and efficiently solves logistical concerns of lengthy missions.

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The Veggie system. Photo courtesy NASA

Scientists also have hopes that watching plants grow in zero gravity could unlock the inner workings of cell biology that are harder to see on Earth. And those kinds of findings could lead to increased yields and better-tasting crops here on Earth. In the mean time, researchers just think the contraption will be fun to test out, and they hope it’ll inspire kids to learn about science, space, and food.