Life at the International Space Station is about to get spicier as NASA announced its plans to grow the first fruiting plant in space.
ISS Quests For Space-Grown Chiles
NASA said it chose the Española chile pepper plant or Capsicum annuum because it has a short growing period, can grow at high altitudes, and can be easily pollinated. Peppers are excellent sources of Vitamin C, minerals, and antioxidants that are important for space diets.
NASA is currently experimenting growing the plant on Earth under simulated space conditions and if all plans go well, the chile pepper plant will be sent to the ISS between November this year and January 2020.
"We were also looking for varieties that don't grow too tall, and yet are very productive in the controlled environments that we would be using in space," said Ray Wheeler, NASA plant physiologist.
While there is an assortment of traditional prepackaged and dehydrated foods that can be eaten in space, Wheeler said astronauts have often expressed a desire for more spicy and flavourful foods. The Española pepper plant will suit the dietary needs and help provide and nutrition for astronauts on space journey.
The particular chile pepper plant grows at higher elevations in New Mexico's Española previously known as the San Juan Valley. It has a slightly stronger pungent and bitter flavor and matures early to red. It was first grown by Spanish settlers in the area.
Growing Foods In Space
Growing plants in space stations have become common since the crew of Soviet Salyut 7 first grew the model plant Arabidopsis in 1982. Russian cosmonauts were the first to plant and consume space-grown produce in 2003.
Three years ago, NASA astronauts succeeded in growing and eating different types of lettuce on the ISS. Other foods such as Chinese cabbage, radishes, Swiss chard, peas, and other vegetables are already being produced aboard the space station.
Despite the microgravity in space, astronauts were successful in growing certain types of plants onboard the ISS. Through the use of varied techniques, special types of lights, and temperature, they have coaxed plants into figuring out which way is "up" and "down".
To help grow fresh food aboard the ISS, NASA has set up the Advanced Plant Habitat, a fully automated facility for bioscience research that would complement the portable growing box called Vegetable Production System or Veggie. Through the Veggie, astronauts were able to grow green leafy vegetables, and flowers such as zinnias, and sunflowers in space.
"We can build all the rockets we want to go to Mars, but it won't work unless we have food to eat," said Jacob Torres, a native of New Mexico and a horticultural scientist at NASA who is working primarily on the Española chili pepper project.