A project examining how to water plants in space will be vital to feeding astronauts for missions to Mars and beyond, NASA has said.
Ensuring that plants receive the adequate nourishment is an age-old challenge for farmers on Earth – and in space.
NASA is one step closer to determining the most effective way to provide adequate hydration and aeration for plants to grow in space after completing NASA Glenn’s Plant Water Management (PWM) project.
This project is part of ongoing NASA research to learn how to feed astronaut crews during long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars, as they spend weeks, months, and even years in space.
“In the past, NASA has shown that plant growth in space is feasible as a food source,” said PWM Project Scientist Tyler Hatch. “From a gardening perspective, it’s possible.”
Hatch’s team worked with plant biologists at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to determine the needs of plants and issues that arise when attempting to grow vegetation on the International Space Station.
Researchers looked at two ways water reaches the plant’s root zone. The first focused on the traditional manner using soil. The second method involved hydroponics, where no soil is present, and the plant sits in water.
The team developed artificial plants for the project. Using live plants would pose a challenge, mostly for shelf-life purposes. They used felt fabric, foam, and sponges to create simulated plants that mirrored the root system and evaporation rate of a live plant.
Data collection centred on visual aspects, and how quickly the plants absorbed a fruit punch containing nutrients and sugar. Cameras captured video of the PWM process on the space station, which was then relayed to Glenn researchers.
The PWM project completed the first set of space station operations at the end of February and completed its final iteration in early April.
The team hopes to run more tests in the future.