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NASA to grow fresh food in space

By Jenny Eagle+

14-Apr-2014
Last updated on 14-Apr-2014 at 16:39 GMT

Red romaine lettuce plants grow inside in a prototype Veggie flight pillow (photo courtesy of NASA/Gioia Massa)
Red romaine lettuce plants grow inside in a prototype Veggie flight pillow (photo courtesy of NASA/Gioia Massa)

NASA has launched a ‘Veggie’ project to grow vegetables and herbs in Space and if successful, could be used on lettuce, radishes, bok choy, Chinese cabbage and bitter leafy greens.

The Veggie system, built by Orbital Technologies Corporation, is a plant growth chamber using light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which will initially focus on Outredgeous lettuce seedlings.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule

It uses about 115 watts to operate and the blue, red and green LEDs are bright enough for crops to grow, but energy efficient enough for a place where power is at a premium.

Gioia Massa, project scientist, NASA, has been working with the International Space Station Research Office to validate the Veggie hardware on Earth before it takes flight next year on SpaceX's Dragon capsule.

Veggie will provide a resource for US astronauts and researchers, to develop capabilities of growing fresh produce and large plants on the space station,” she said.

"You could have bio-behavioral studies on the effect of growing edible plants compared to ornamental plants with flowers, nutritional studies, psychological studies, or you could grow herbs like mint and basil.

Crops like tomatoes, peas or beans in which you'd have to have a flower and set fruit would take a little longer than a 28-day cycle.”

The technology is collapsible for transport, storage and expandable up to a foot and a half.

Biggest plant growth chamber to date

The internal growing area is 11.5 inches wide by 14.5 inches deep, making it the largest plant growth chamber for space to date.

Clear Teflon bellows that can be adjusted for plants as they grow are attached to a metal frame housing the system's power and light switches.

A rooting pillow made of Teflon-coated Kevlar and Nomex contains the planting material, such as soil or clay-like particles, along with fertilizer pellets.

Seeds will either be preloaded in the pillows on Earth or inserted by astronauts in space. To water the plants, crew members can use a reservoir underneath the pillows and a root mat to add moisture.

NASA is looking into other ways to use Veggie once its first flight is complete.

"Our hope is even though Veggie is not a highly complex plant growth apparatus, it will allow the crew to rapidly grow vegetables using a simple nutrient and water approach," said Howard Levine, Ph.D. and chief scientist, NASA's Kennedy Space Center International Space Station Research Office.

Massa added determining food safety is one of the primary goals for the validation test.

Veggie is set to join other plant growth facilities that vary in size and complexity, such as the Lada greenhouse unit and the ABRS (Advanced Biological Research System).

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