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Gardening in Space May Bring Us Another Step Closer to Understanding Plant Life

Press Release From: Marshall Space Flight Center
Posted: Monday, April 30, 2001

The Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a NASA Commercial Space Center with partners in industry and academia, is dedicated to helping industry explore the possibilities.

With the help of NASA's Space Product Development Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, this Commercial Space Center has developed a series of plant growth units dedicated to plant biotechnology research sponsored by industry. The plant growth units are designed especially to operate in the microgravity environment created as the Space Station orbits Earth.

This is the first plant growth facility installed in the International Space Station. The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ fills two middeck lockers and builds on a smaller experiment flown on eight previous Space Shuttle flights and Space Station Mir.

The objectives of the first ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ experiment are as follows:

  • Whether Arabidopsis, a member of the Brassica plant family that includes species such as cabbage and radishes, can complete its seed-to-seed life cycle in microgravity
  • The impact of microgravity on the gene expression levels, which consist of the plant's genetic traits
  • Compare the chemical characteristics of the seeds produced in space with those harvested on Earth

Space Explorers Inc., the commercial partner for this investigation, specializes in producing Internet-based, space education programs. Space Explorers has created and marketed the "Orbital Laboratory" program, which is a school kit and Internet multi-media educational program that allows students to design, conduct, and analyze the space experiment on the International Space Station. Using the kit, students can compare data through an online student experiment database. After the experiment is finished on the Space Station, students can use actual data from the experiment to recreate the experiment in a virtual environment.

The program is the first-ever, student-designed experiment aboard the Station, and the first of a series of commercial payloads used for educational purposes by Space Explorers. The program is being marketed to the kindergarten through high school education community worldwide. For a special price, schools can purchase a kit containing the necessary materials to conduct the plant experiment. They also receive access to the Orbital Laborator¬¯°±D curricula, plant data from the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ experiment on board the Station, and data from other participating schools worldwide. As part of the program, they can participate in Web chats with personnel involved in the mission and have access to many other program features. The product will also be sold as a retail product for home schools and consumers.

Starting with Space Station Expedition Two, plant scientists will be able to conduct long-term plant research in a microgravity environment. They will be able to study the entire plant life cycle -- from seeds to plants to seeds.

To accomplish this, the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ provides a completely enclosed, environmentally controlled plant growth chamber that was successfully demonstrated by ASTROCULTURE™ during Shuttle and Mir missions. The growth chamber is larger, enabling plants to grow bigger. The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ controls temperature, humidity, light, atmospheric conditions, and delivery of nutrients to plants. It requires no power during Shuttle ascent and descent.

Before the flight, scientists planted seeds in a root tray using a dry rooting material similar to peat moss. The seed tray was attached to the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ growth chamber. Reservoirs in the growth unit were loaded with water and nutrient solutions that plants need to live while aboard the Space Station.

The equipment is configured as two middeck lockers that insert separately into a Space Station EXPRESS Rack. One locker contains the support systems and the other contains the plant growth chamber and ancillary hardware. This arrangement allows the support system to remain on board, while the Shuttle transports plant growth units to and from the Space Station with different experiments.

Both units were placed aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor for the STS-100 mission that launched April 19, 2001, and docked with the Space Station during Flight 6A. The crew moved the two middeck lockers to the U.S. Laboratory Module, Destiny, and installed the lockers in the top shelves of EXPRESS Rack No. 1. The crew will activate the growth chamber by turning on the temperature and humidity control unit.

The system will automatically deliver fluid and nutrients to the root tray, and the seeds will germinate. The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ will operate automatically for approximately two months. During the plant growth period, the crew will sample nutrients, gases and plant transpiration inside the plant growth chamber three times -- early, middle, and late in the experiment. After the flight, investigators can analyze the samples to determine how healthy the plants were during various growth phases.

On a routine basis, the crew will monitor the plants' status by checking displays on the front panel of the support system unit and by observing the plant video. Science telemetry and video from the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ will be transmitted to scientists in their operations center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison via the Telescience Resource Kit (TReK) system.

At thirty days, or about halfway into the experiment, the crew will replenish the nutrient solution by refilling the nutrient reservoir to maintain the desired concentration of nutrients. The experiment will end in about 50 to 55 days when the plants are expected to produce mature seeds. The growth unit along with the enclosed plants will be returned to Earth at the end of Expedition Two on Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-105 mission, ISS Flight 7A.1. After landing, the growth unit will be returned to scientists for analysis.

The Space Shuttle will deliver a second growth unit containing a different species of plant to the Space Station two months later during Expedition Four, ISS Flight UF1. The support system will remain installed in EXPRESS Rack No. 1 inside Destiny between growth chamber flights. It will be returned to Earth every one to two years for refurbishment.

This is the first Space Station experiment in which plants will be grown long enough to determine if they can produce seeds, and if those seeds can be used to grow more plants. Since the Space Station will remain in orbit for longer than a decade, it provides an ideal laboratory for growing plants and studying the influence gravity has played as plants evolved on Earth.

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