Espanola Improved peppers will be grown in Space in 2020. These are four plants at 101 days old growing in the APH EDU.
NASA is scheduled to grow peppers on the International Space Station (ISS) in fulfillment of the Hatch, NM to ISS mission. The method to growing the selected “Española Improved” pepper, a New Mexico variety, involves a technical demonstration within the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH).
Looking at the big picture, as the peppers are growing within the ISS, the crew will be completing experimentation and technological work for scientists, engineers, researchers, and academics from around the world. The technical demonstration in the APH will be just one thing that the astronaut crew members will be keeping an eye on.
Over the 120 day or so period that the peppers will take to grow, actual hands on crew time will be limited. Crew interactions will be scheduled for key moments of the grow out like planting, system checks, plant thinning, and harvest.
The rest of the work boils down to farming by computer from Earth.
The APH is a environmentally controlled plant growth chamber, about the size of a small refrigerator, which uses technology and automation to maintain conditions and provide functions to support plant growth.
Life functions for a plant are lighting, irrigation, air flow, temperature, humidity, and gas control (like CO2). All things that the APH does instructed by an automated code of commands designed specifically for the crop under exploration. Each of these functions can be commanded to fulfill a task by the ground team at anytime.
The APH uses sensors to record continuous data of various parameters like temperature, relative humidity, light intensity (PAR), and growth media moisture level just to name a few. It has multiple cameras at two angles to record pictures and videos while the plants are growing.
This gives us astro farmers on the ground a feel and view into what’s going on in our plant growth chamber in space.
How will it happen?
The “science carrier” which is divided into four quadrants is packed with arcillite growth media and time release fertilizer. A group of us will do that here on Earth before flight. Española Improved pepper seeds will be sanitized, and glued to the wicks.
It will have to stay in tact during the rocket ride up to the ISS, and we will have be very careful while packing it. Lose particles like the growth media can float everywhere in space!
The astronauts will receive the science carrier ready to go. Basically, they will connect irrigation hoses and sensor wires to the APH, and run through the initiation processes.
After the crew installs the science carrier into the APH, to start plant growth, the ground team, including myself, will work with the crew to initiate the irrigation, and other systems.
As the peppers are growing, we will monitor the data, make observation’s from the pictures taken, and employ the knowledge that we earned practicing in our labs at Kennedy Space Center to make the adjustments needed at each stage of growth.
Just a reminder, we are on Earth, and the plants are in space. We will not be able to physically monitor our plants on a regular basis to determine what they need to grow.
We do have our crew member who can step in when needed, but we will be reliant on the APHs’ systems to give us indications on what to do.
This is very different from Earth farming where I personally rely on plant interaction and feel, to give the plants what they need.
Assuming that our seeds germinate, and they grow in the science carrier. Assuming that all systems function as planned or can be controlled to maintain plant growth. Assuming that we have flowers, and that the fan will be successful at pollinating the fruit. And assuming that peppers don’t mind growing in microgravity, we will have completed a marker in history by growing the first fruit in space.
It will be a achievement of not only the small group that I work with, but the many others who build and launch rockets, the astronauts who make it happen, the people of all walks doing their jobs to make these types of things possible….you know NASA things!
It will be something for the ages! A positive footnote in astro botany as plants are grown on the Moon, Mars, and eventually the stars to supplement astronauts diets on deep space missions from home.
Farming by computer and sensor, although counter intuitive, will be the way that NASA will supply fresh food to the crew during long term space missions.
This practice of employing automation and technology to agriculture has implications beyond space. Here on earth, technology has helped to increase production of all types of crops. Automation helps deliver fresh produce to all stretches of the planet. I am excited to be a part of it!
It is a important note… I do not speak for NASA or my team. I very humbly speak for myself in this text. I use pictures taken by myself and explain my experience as I work in these projects. It is my hope that everybody is able to see the work we do and I write this to give my best perspective of. Thank you for tuning in. -Jacob
The APH technical data sheet. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/20160005065.pdf
APH Installed https://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20190033200
Key Gaps for Enabling Plant Growth in Future (Space) Missions https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/6.2017-5142
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