In a small advance toward self-sufficiency in space, researchers have nurtured a soybean crop through an entire cycle, from seed to seed, aboard the International Space Station.
Before the space station, experiments growing plants in zero gravity lasted a few days and included only a small number of plants. The new space greenhouse, created by a team led by Weijia Zhou of the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics in Madison, can run for months at a time. Light levels, temperature, humidity, nutrients, and atmospheric gases can be set automatically to match the needs of different plants. "Soybeans are difficult to grow in space. They demonstrate that this technology can be used to develop any tall, edible plant," Zhou says.
The results will help guide future NASA projects aimed at growing plants to absorb carbon dioxide and to provide food on long space missions. The plants may also provide a mood lift. "There's an overwhelming demand by astronauts for fresh produce," Zhou says. "The moment cosmonaut Sergei Treschev saw the soybeans, he wanted to eat them."
Space-faring soybeans, ready for harvest Photograph courtesy of Dupont and WCSAR.