Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are currently using their green-thumbs to tend to their zero-gravity vegetable garden.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are currently using their green-thumbs to tend to their zero-gravity vegetable garden comprising of radishes, mustard greens, pak choi, and lettuces.

ISS Zero-Gravity Garden

Mike Hopkins, a NASA astronaut, has now taken the lead role in cultivating and caring for the vegetables grown on the ISS and a number of other experiments. The thriving zero-gravity garden was the product of Hopkins first ever recorded plant transplant within the NASA Vegetable Production System.

Hopkins and the crew harvested the second wave of radishes grown in space and ate them over the new year. He also worked on new experiments, one of which was the first-ever crop transplant in space.

During this experiment, Hopkins noticed that some crops weren’t thriving in space as much as other crops. Hence, the ISS astronaut experimented on a way to rearrange the crops to maximize the nutrients available.

Another experiment focused on planting the first lettuce seeds in orbit. Under normal conditions, sees are planted into nutrient-rich mediums before being sent to the ISS. However, the development of new seed films allowed ISS astronauts to plant crops by themselves.

In a statement, Hopkins stressed the importance of the experiments in future long-term space missions. First, the experiments provided future astronauts with a medium to grow crops in space which will provide a stable food source that will enhance astronaut nutrition and make the crew more self-sufficient.

Additionally, Hopkins explains that the zero-gravity vegetable garden boosts morale by reminding the crew of their connection to Earth.

Hopkins mentioned the psychological significance of growing and eating fresh products for astronauts. With all their food being sent a pre-packaged form that leads to a food monotony effect, people lose their appetites and feel less engaged. Occasional treats such as fresh vegetables and snacks can have a powerful psychological boost and will be relevant for long-haul missions and future Mars missions.

On the other hand, the sustainability of pre-packaged foods is a deciding factor for future Mars missions. During future Mars missions, astronauts will voyage for seven months per way, and they will need a variety of foods to sustain them over years of missions.

Hopkins adds that pre-packaged foods currently available have a good shelf life of roughly 18 months. However, the psychological component of having fresh food available as well as occasional interaction with fresh plants will surely aid future astronauts.

Deep Space Food Challenge

Ralph Fritsche, a senior project manager at Kennedy Space Center, says that researchers are trying to boost continuous capabilities for astronauts to supply crops for food in addition to pre-packaged meals.

According to NASA, it has partnered with the Canadian Space Agency to coordinate efforts to seek crowd-sourced ideas and solutions to feeding astronauts in future missions.

The agencies have launched the Deep Space Food Challenge, a multi-phased international competition open for US, Canada, and International participants that can develop sustainable and innovative food systems for long-haul human exploration missions.

Originally published at The Science Times