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Home > Smart Living> Innovation > Nasa is testing a new approach to grow plants in space

Nasa is testing a new approach to grow plants in space

On board the International Space Station, the XROOTS project will use hydroponic and aeroponic techniques to grow crop plants without soil

Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor harvests red Russian kale and dragoon lettuce from Veggie on Nov. 28, 2018,
Astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor harvests red Russian kale and dragoon lettuce from Veggie on Nov. 28, 2018, (Credits: ESA/Alexander Gerst)

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The International Space Station has been home to cutting-edge research for decades now. When Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft arrived at the station earlier this week, it brought with itself tonnes of research, hardware, and science experiments, including a study that examines the effects of a drug on breast and prostate cancer cells.

One of these science experiments, known as XROOTS, could go a long way in helping scientists identify suitable methods to produce crops on a larger scale for future space missions. As we all know, one of the most complex questions around interplanetary space missions is to find ways to provide long duration life-support to astronauts. Plants could play a key role in finding the answers to this question.

Also read: What did we learn from experiments on the space station in 2020?

What is XROOTS? It’s essentially an acronym for eXposed Root On-Orbit Test System. According to Nasa, the objective of the XROOTS technology demonstration is to evaluate soilless nutrient delivery and recovery techniques over the course of plant growth in the microgravity environment of the space station. XROOTS will be integrated with one of the ‘Veggie’ or vegetable production system plant growth units currently being used aboard the space station.

Current plant-growth systems use soil or growing media. The XROOTS system will evaluate alternative approaches to reduce the overall system mass. Operations with the system are planned to occur over the course of six months, with individual tests lasting between 14 and 60 days. 

A preflight view of the XROOTS hardware. The eXposed Root On-Orbit Test System (XROOTS) investigation uses hydroponic and aeroponic techniques to grow plants without soil or other growth media.
A preflight view of the XROOTS hardware. The eXposed Root On-Orbit Test System (XROOTS) investigation uses hydroponic and aeroponic techniques to grow plants without soil or other growth media. (Courtesy: Nasa)

This system is designed to observe multiple variables: such as nutrient solution spray, flow, and ebb behavior in different capillary configurations and with different operating protocols, a Nasa report explains. XROOTS uses still images and video to observe root development and the interaction of fluid with roots at different growth stages. Data will also be collected using sensors and short periods of crew observation.

Like many other technologies tested on the ISS, XROOTS could also have potential uses and offer solutions on Earth. According to the space agency, the growth system components developed for this scientific investigation could enhance cultivation of plants in terrestrial settings such as greenhouses, contributing to better food security for people on Earth.

Apart from XROOTS, the Cygnus spacecraft has also carried a demonstration of a lithium-ion secondary battery capable of safe, stable operation under extreme temperatures and in a vacuum environment. Another interesting scientific payload are new hydrogen sensors that will be tested for the space station’s oxygen generation system. In recent years, research conducted on the space station has given us more understanding on complicated topics like Parkinson’s disease, combustion, muscle loss, microorganisms and even exoplanets.

Also read: How does it feel to live on the International Space Station? Ask an astronaut

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