From: Kennedy Space Center
Posted: Monday, April 1, 2002
Could astronauts soon be making their own bread in space? Scientists at Kennedy Space Center will get their first detailed look at how exposure to space affects wheat plant growth over a period of time, and compare the results of the experiment with the growth rate and behavior of plants on Earth.
When Space Shuttle Atlantis launches from KSC on mission STS-110, April 4, it will carry more than seven astronauts and hardware bound for the International Space Station. KSC's most complex plant experiment, PESTO (Photosynthesis Experiment and System Testing and Operation) also will make the trek to the Station.
The PESTO experiment will travel in a Biomass Production System (BPS) inside Atlantis' crew compartment during flight. The BPS is an engineering development unit for a future ISS plant habitat capable of supporting long-term plant growth and botanical experimentation in space. The BPS was developed for NASA by Orbital Technologies Corp.
Once the Space Shuttle has docked with the Station, mission specialists will transfer PESTO to the Station's Destiny Lab where it will remain for at least 61 days in orbit. PESTO will study and determine whether wheat plants will produce oxygen during photosynthesis, and purify water through transpiration, at the same rates as on Earth.
"The PESTO experiment will test the performance of wheat plants in space using critical measurements in a similar way that one might test a race car engine for horsepower of fuel economy," said David Cox, project manager for NASA's PESTO project. "Plants are a crucial part of the ecological system that supports human life. This research will provide important knowledge necessary for future interplanetary travel as well as provide additional insight into crop growth here on Earth."
While PESTO is not the first plant experiment in space, it is the first plant experiment that will be grown under well-controlled conditions, for long periods of time, for the sole purpose of understanding life support functions in space. PESTO was developed to bring together the knowledge gained from lessons learned during previous science and education experiments on relatively short Space Shuttle missions, as well as on Russia's space station Mir.
The experiment, designed by a team of scientists from NASA and Dynamac Corp. at KSC, has important implications for future long-duration spaceflight and will be followed by additional experiments on the Station. Dynamac Corp. is KSC's Life Sciences contractor.
Dynamac Corp.'s principal investigator for the PESTO experiment, Dr. Gary Stutte said, "We at KSC spend much of our time helping researchers process and integrate their life sciences payloads, so it's especially rewarding to have the opportunity to perform this experiment."
He continued, "It's been a privilege to work with such a dedicated team of scientists and engineers to make this experiment a reality."
The PESTO experiment is part of NASA's Fundamental Biology Research Program and is funded by a grant from NASA's Office of Biological and Physical Research. The PESTO experiment involves people from around the country including KSC, Ames Research Center, and the Orbital Technologies Corp.
Although much of the PESTO experiment is automated, the astronaut crew will periodically monitor it, harvest the wheat twice on orbit and start up two additional growth cycles.
Amber waves of grain may soon be more than just a novelty in space.
PESTO will return to Earth on the STS-111 mission currently targeted for launch in late May 2002.
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