After a hard day of exploring the void between worlds, astronauts will need hearty meals to keep them going. China plans to make sure that they have access to fresh food. The Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) has recently reported successfully growing rice and vegetables on the Tiangong space station.
China is one of the world’s biggest space players; they routinely run experiments in orbit and have their own space station the Tiangong 1 — also known as Temporary Space Station Tiangong, until the new one is built. Now, Chinese astronauts report successfully growing rice and vegetables on Tiangong.
While growing crops on Earth is a very common thing, we had little understanding of whether, or how, this process unfolds in zero gravity. The success of this experiment is particularly important as it showcases that the crops involved — thale cress and rice — can be grown in space. The findings bring further evidence that it is possible for astronauts to grow their own food away from Earth, with massive implications for long-term exploration missions.
Space for farms
“Crops can only be grown in artificial environments that mimic Earth-like conditions,” said Zheng Huiqiong, a researcher at the CAS Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences. “By comparing plant flowers, we can find crops more adapted to space and microgravity environments.”
The experiment started on July 29, when seeds of thal cress and rice were planted on the Tiangong space station. Although the resulting plants are not scheduled to be brought back home until the end of the year, the CAS reports seeing great progress with these plants in the short month since the experiment began.
Rice seeds have sprouted and have grown stems ranging between 5 and 30 centimeters in length. Thal cress seeds have also successfully sprouted and show noticeable development, with the sprouts developing up to four leaves as of date; as this plant is a representative specimen of many leafy vegetables, the results here give researchers grounds to believe that other crops like rapeseed, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts can also successfully develop in space.
Until December, the plants will continue growing aboard Tiangong and the crew will continue to monitor their progress. The goal is to better understand how the conditions aboard space vessels (particularly the high levels of ambient radiation) influence the life cycle of each plant. They also want to determine whether micro- and zero-gravity environments can be leveraged to increase crop productivity in any way.
China has dabbled in space-borne crops before. Two years ago, a Chinese probe delivered rice seeds to the moon and back, which will be used to develop new varieties of the staple grain back here on Earth.
On the other hand, experiments on the International Space Station have resulted in space-grown peppers, broccoli, and a flower garden. Down on Earth, we’ve also been able to grow crops in Lunar dust and we’re pretty confident agriculture could be brought to Mars, as well.