In 2015, the astronauts onboard the International Space Station successfully harvested fresh lettuce. By 2021, fresh beans could be on their menu, too.
The Norwegian University of Science and Technology revealed in a press release last week that the crew of the orbiting outpost will attempt to grow beans in space using high-tech planters. The goal, the university said, is to one day provide fresh produce for astronauts who are in a mission to outer space.
"The dream of every astronaut is to be able to eat fresh food — like strawberries, cherry tomatoes or anything that's really flavorful," stated Silje Wolff, a plant physiologist at the NTNU. "Someday that will certainly be possible."
Farming In Space
For the meantime, however, the NTNU scientists want to grow beans and observe how the legumes would react to the absence of gravity, specifically with how the plant transports water and absorb nutrients. According to the press release, the plants will be placed into a centrifuge that rotates to simulate different levels of gravity in the space station.
On Earth, the gravity causes warm air to float while cold air sinks. In space, the air is more stable and still. This affects astronauts and scientists want to know if it will affect plants, too.
"Stationary air affects a layer on the underside of the leaf where the stoma pores are located. When gravity disappears, the boundary layer in the slit-shaped apertures thickens. This reduces evaporation and causes the leaf temperature to increase," explained Wolff. "Water vapor diffusion to the environment is an important part of plant regulation and can be compared with sweating to cool the body in humans and animals."
NTNU is currently working with French and Italian scientists to cultivate more plant-based food for future manned missions in space.
Boosting The Physical, Mental Well-Being Of Astronauts
The experiment will also benefit astronauts who spend up to six months onboard the space station. Right now, the ISS crew survives by eating freeze-dried and vacuum-packed food, which are not always appetizing.
Wolff explained that astronauts often have to deal with little appetite. Fresh food can trigger the appetite.
That is why, in 2015, when astronauts made their first harvest of lettuce grown onboard the ISS, they celebrated. Crew members of Expedition 44 feasted by eating the leaves with extra virgin olive oil and Italian balsamic vinegar.
Moreover, gardening has been found to aid a person's cognitive performance and mental well-being. Wolff added that for astronauts who spend months away from their families and other humans, tending for the plants remind them of life back home.