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High School Students Experiment With Growing Food on International Space Station

As we make more advancements in space travel, scientists need to ensure that the astronauts are prepared with anything and everything. Whether that be equipment, supplies, and of course, food.

As we know, astronauts are spending more and more time living in space.  For example, Astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth in March after spending 340 consecutive days on board the International Space Station. With that, they need a way to grow nutritious food efficiently with their limited amount of space (pun intended) and resources. Eleven students from San Jose, California decided to take their high school project to the next level…the International Space Station.

On May 21st, six broccoli seeds were launched aboard the Orbital ATK Cygnus from NASA Wallops Launch Facility in Virginia (amongst other things). Half of the seeds were coated with two different species of bacteria while the other three were not coated at all. These microbes are called endophytes, and they were used to coat the seeds on board. These endophytes were developed at the University of Washington that lives inside of the plant in order to help with its growth.  

Eleven students at Valley Christian High School are participants in Quest Institute for Quality Education’s “Quest for Space” program, and their goal is to learn how complicated it is to grow plants in space with the difficult conditions and microgravity. They were able to conduct this experiment as NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, where they were mentored by David Bubenheim of the center’s Biospheric Science Branch and John Freeman of Intrinsyx Technologies. During this “quest”, they learned that the broccoli not only grew faster, but larger in size when the seeds were coated with the endophytes.

Freeman’s studies with plant growth in microgravity prove the findings of an experiment in 2016 by Sharon Doty, a professor at the University of Washington (and one of the creators of the endophytes), and her team. Doty’s found that seeds that are given microbes actually survive and thrive in stressful and low water environments. The microbes provide the nutrients that the plants need in order to successfully grow.  

The six broccoli seeds are the first of many experiments to explore how natural microbes help plants grow with limitations and the stressful environment of microgravity. When they return to Earth after growing on board the Space Station, the students will be able to measure their chlorophyll content and their growth.  They will take that data and compare it to the broccoli without the the microbes.

After the students take down their findings, Doty and her team will test the findings on other species of plants and see if they are compatible with the broccoli, and if their growth is similar.

(Source: https://knowridge.com/2018/05/broccoli-in-space-how-probiotics-could-help-grow-veggies-in-microgravity/)

(Header Image Credit: Deborah Rigg)


Cassie Thonen is a Space Reporter and Photojournalist for Star Letters.  She studied Studio Art and Design at Northern Illinois University, with a degree emphasis in Photography.  When she is not chasing rockets or staring at the stars, Cassie can be found perfecting her photography or with her dogs, Frankie and Chewie.  You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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