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    A closer look at the space farming project

    Until today, space research has focused on the behavior of seeds. Now the V3PO project takes this one step further into unexplored territory.  

    Maria, Raphael and David are pre-testing their experiment in BASF’s agricultural research centre.

    A journey to Mars and back can take almost two years. To provide fresh food for the whole mission, astronauts would need large quantities of seeds. But harvested seeds don't always grow true to the original plant and there's a risk that the plant characteristics could change from generation to generation. An alternative could be vegetative propagation: growing plants from cuttings. In contrast to seedlings, cuttings do not start with a root system, so Maria, Raphael and David are investigating whether they can build roots, shoots, and leaves in microgravity, without knowing which way is up and which way is down. If cuttings can grow under zero-gravity conditions, it would be a significant advance in finding ways to grow food in space.

    overview

    Great things come in small packages

    Introducing the "AFEx Habitat"

    It’s smaller than a drinks can, made of transparent plastic and it’s the most vital piece of equipment in the space farming research project. At first glance, it may not look so exciting, but behind this tiny experiment container lies a mass of high-tech engineering technology. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    Introducing the "AFEx Habitat"

    It’s smaller than a drinks can, made of transparent plastic and it’s the most vital piece of equipment in the space farming research project. At first glance, it may not look so exciting, but behind this tiny experiment container lies a mass of high-tech engineering technology. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    Designed by students

    The "AFEx Habitat" in this picture was originally designed and built by US college students for a NASA project to study fruit flies in space. Intrinsyx, a specialist space engineering company in the United States is now custom building two of these polypropylene microboxes, each housing two planting chambers, especially for the V3PO project. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    Lights, camera, action

    Two “AFEx Habitat” microboxes fit snugly into an outer case. Semi-permeable membranes allow air to pass in and out and regulate moisture levels. A power connection supports light, ventilation, sensors to measure environmental conditions and a video system to monitor the experiment. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    Small but valuable

    It might be tiny but each one costs hundreds of dollars to build. In fact, the “AFEx Habitat” boxes are so high-tech that Maria, David and Raphael from the V3PO team will first get to work with their new boxes when they arrive at the NASA laboratories to prepare their experiment for the launch. Click on next picture for more information.

    Space Traveller

    Until then, the V3PO students are trialing their experiment in a box that has already been to space and back - it was originally used to study fruit flies on the ISS in 2014!
    overview

    The plant in space: Ficus pumila

    It wasn’t easy to find the right “passenger” for the trip to the ISS. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    It wasn’t easy to find the right “passenger” for the trip to the ISS. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    The plant, or rather the leaf cuttings taken from it, had to fulfill tough space travel requirements: small due to the limited space; resistant to extreme temperatures between 4-30°C; and fast-growing to produce roots quickly during the 30 days on the ISS. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    After a long search, the school students found the perfect plant: Ficus pumila, a member of the Ficus genus. Other members of this plant family are the well-known ornamental Ficus benjamini, and Ficus carica – the tree that produces figs and the namesake of the genus. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    It’s not possible for the students to import plant material into the United States, so they will first have to source a suitable Ficus pumila specimen to take their cuttings from in Florida. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    In the NASA laboratories, the students will then take 15mm cuttings, carefully insert them into an agar-based growing medium, before delivering their experiment to NASA’s operations team 72 hours before lift-off. Click on the next picture to find out more.

    Most of us know Ficus pumila as an ornamental house or garden plant, so why is it being used for this experiment? BASF scientist, Sebastian Rohrer, explains, “Ficus pumila is being used as a surrogate for vegetable plants such as tomato, cucumber or pepper. This approach is common scientific practice.”

    Due to different temperature and humidity levels between the launch rocket and the ISS, bacterial or fungal contamination of the cuttings could occur. This is one area in which BASF is providing its expertise, knowledge – and products. BASF fungicides are helping to protect the plant cuttings from disease during the research period on the ISS, as well as on the flight from and back to earth.