The zinnia plants that have recently blossomed aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are part of NASA’s “Veggie” experiment, which may help astronauts produce their own fruits and vegetables on the future manned mission to Mars.
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), successful space gardening is a key component in space exploration. The Veggie project offers opportunities for better understanding of how plants can grow in space, NASA stated in a blog post.
To help the zinnias grow, the bags of seeds were first placed in a type of calcined clay – which increased aeration – and then onto trays of water. The plants were fertilised using an automatic release and were lit by LED (light-emitting diode) lights.
High-speed fans that kept the flowers dry, because high humidity had led to a mould breakout, actually dried out the plants, according to NASA’s Veggie team. As a result, the zinnias needed more frequent watering than usual, the researchers said.
Scott Kelly, an astronaut at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and a retired U.S. Navy Captain, took over the garden in late December. He soon reported that the flowers needed water – way before the next watering was scheduled by the Veggie design team (located on Earth).
Two of the four zinnia plants died because of the stress caused by excessive humidity and then dryness. They were sent back to Earth for analysis. The other two flowers managed to blossom, Mr. Kelly reported on Twitter.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said that the two remaining zinnia do not only represent a step further in cosmic gardening, but their bright colours may also aid the astronaut’s morale and mental health.
Alexandra Whitmire, a behavioural health scientist in the NASA Human Research Program, said that plants can in fact help astronauts on long-term missions conducted in extreme environments – which are deprived of nature – in isolation, and confinement. For many astronauts, taking care of plants will be beneficial, she added.
According to Dr. Whitmire, other studies conducted in Antarctic stations – which are often confined and isolated environments – have found that fresh food and plants are very beneficial from a psychosocial aspect.
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