We can think of Space Agriculture as a sub-branch of astrobiology, which studies all living things that live or can live in the space environment.
Space Agriculture, which is of great importance for the increasingly prolonged residence times in the space environment and especially for future planned trips to Mars, has had great importance in space studies since the 1940s.
Scientists who thought that seeds sent to space and brought back could exhibit different behavior; In the first studies, they planted the returned seeds and observed a difference.
In fact, in the Apollo 14 program carried out in 1971, 500 seeds collected from several trees such as pine and alder circulated the Moon. They remained in the capsule and were brought back to Earth and planted. Scientists examining trees formed from these seeds were unable to detect any changes.
In 1982, with an experiment prepared by Lithuanian scientists, the plant named Thale Cress or its scientific name Arabidopsis Thaliana was grown on the Soviet space station, Salyut–7. The scientists who cultivated the plant allowed the plant to flower and set seeds. In this way, Arabidopsis Thaliana became the first plant to bloom and give sources in space.
Now It’s Next Lettuce
When grown in space, is Lettuce as nutritious as grown on Earth? According to scientists, if the answer to this question is “yes,” it will be more likely that astronauts will one day produce their food.
NASA astronauts announced that the first Lettuce grown in space was as safe and, in some cases, even more, nutritious than those produced on Earth.
Space–grown Lettuces were similar in quality to Earth–grown control samples, while some plants were more prosperous in several elements, including Potassium, Sodium, and Zinc.
The crops were grown individually in clay soil under Red Led lighting for 33–56 days in the experiment.
Gio Massa, who led the lettuce growing project, said: “I think plants will be essential in the future if we want to be independent of Earth as well, to feed our crew. However, if you store packaged food for a long time, its quality, flavor, and nutritiveness will decrease, and vitamins will deteriorate. At this time, we cannot guarantee that they will be nutritious enough,” he said.
“Growing and caring for plants can also have psychological benefits,” Massa added.
The scientists tested both Lettuces in similar environments and were “surprised” at the extent of the nutritional value of space–grown Lettuce.
Although Lettuce had higher bacteria levels, the crops did not appear to carry dangerous bacteria such as E.coli or Salmonella.
In light of the findings, the researchers sent seeds of these plants to the International Space Station to see if kale and cabbage would produce similar results.
Currently, astronauts get their food in regular rocket shipments from Earth, but when they go on more extended missions, the nutrients in their food degrade.
The ability to successfully grow food in space is thought to be crucial for long–duration interstellar missions, such as NASA’s first human–crewed Mars mission, scheduled to launch in the next ten years.
Space Station – Grown Lettuce is Nutritious and Safe
One type of Lettuce grown by astronauts on the International Space Station is just as good and nutritious as those on Earth, as research has proven. According to the study led by NASA’s Gioia Massa, Christina Khodadad, and other researchers, lettuce grown on the station between 2014 and 2016 has very similar characteristics and nutrient levels to those grown under identical conditions on Earth’s surface.
It is stated that successfully growing food crops in space are critical for long–distance journeys, as NASA plans to reach Mars.
Experts noted that while Red and Blue lights enable the plant to photosynthesize, Green light prevents the Lettuce from losing its natural color and turning Purple. Still, the first space crop is not ready to be devoured immediately.
Before astronauts eat Lettuce, they must carefully treat it with citric acid–based cleansers found in citrus fruits like lemons. The lettuce will then be sliced into equal parts and tasted by the crew, the first of its kind in space exploration missions to grow Lettuce.
After the first tasting, a long journey awaits the Lettuce. The first harvest on the International Space Station will be packaged and sent to Earth in frozen form. Then, it will be studied how nutritious vegetables grown in a zero–gravity environment are. This development is of great importance for the first human–crewed mission to Mars, scheduled for ten years.
NASA states that Lettuce will not feed astronauts, but it is of great importance to establish renewable food systems in space. The techniques in question will one day produce food on Mars and other planets and be a source of oxygen.
The main difference between station–grown and surface–grown Lettuce is that more microorganisms live on those grown in space. These microorganisms come from the fact that the space station has created microflora, and none of them are harmful to humans. In addition, astronauts living on the International Space Station and continuing their missions do not need any food or other items; These needs are met by cargo rockets regularly sent from the Earth.
According to the researchers, it is not possible to meet the food needs of the team with those grown on the space station. Ongoing work on deep space missions, which will consist of long–term voyages, focuses on the survival of humanity independently of planet Earth.
This development, which will be beneficial in the Mars missions that NASA plans to do in the future, may even benefit the land unsuitable for agriculture.