Out of this world plants

On Wednesday I attended (and volunteered at) a pint of science event- “An evening with an astronaut”. This was an amazing event with Dr Michael Foale (astronaut) and ISSET Director Chris Barber- which showed us about what it is like living in space.


The whole talk was great- but one thing that really intrigued me was the brief mention of growing peas in space.

Over the years many different crop species have been grown in space including:

  • Peas
  • Onions
  • Lettuces
  • Arabidopsis
  • Tulips

But, what are they being grown for?

There are a few reasons that plant experiments are being conducted in space…

1.) How does gravity affect plant growth?

Several experiments have focussed on how plant growth differs in micro-gravity to on Earth. Why? Well, if plant experiments are going to be carried out in micro-gravity we have to see if plants can actually grow in micro-gravity- and what affects micro-gravity may have on the plants. Can all species grow in space? is yield affected? what about lifspan? The answers to these questions may in turn affect future experiments…

By growing plants in micro-gravity scientists are also able to answer questions that are currently unknown about plants- such as determining if plant growth patterns are innate, or environmental.

For example in 1983, sunflower seedlings were taken into space to study Nutation. Nutation is the bending movement made by some plant organs, such as roots where the plant root tip slowly rotates downwards as it grows. Although scientists knew that this process happened in plants- and had known about it since Darwins’ days, no one quite understood the process of nutation. It was theorised that this nutation could be down to gravity.. so what better way to test this than growing some sunflowers without gravity.

A young sunflower plant aboard the ISS. Source: Wikimedia

During the 1983 mission, sunflower movement was monitored via video cameras. It was shown that the seedlings roatated as they grew, even without gravity- showing that gravity was not required to start Nutation.

2. Can we grow food crops in space?

It is the hope that one day in the future we may be able to set up a lunar or Mars Base. But, if this is ever to happen the base needs to be able to make its own food- by growing its on crops.

Illustration of plants growing on Mars. Source: wikimedia commons

So, experiments need to be done to look at growth of plant crops- what growth conditions are the best? are there any micro-organisms that grow on the plants? Can we improve sterilisation methods of seeds? Can we optimise growth of the plants?

This point leads directly onto the next…

3. Would the growth of plants in space benefit space crews?

In space, astronauts are constricted to a – less than exciting- diet, and cramped living quarters. So, several experiments are being carried out in space to determine if the plants grown are edible and nutritous? are they sustainable? is there a way to improve production futher? would the farming of these plants provide a dietary benefit to crews?

These studies also look at another key aspect-  do plants help the crews general wellbeing?

Space based plant science is a really interesting area of science- and could be crucial for the future of space-exploration. You never know… maybe plant science is the way to ensure you become the next astronaut??

Space-based science intrigues you, make sure you check out NASAs website to find out more about the research that has been/ and is going on in space!










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