The outer space has just become a little more delicious.
For several weeks, a few peppers have been growing aboard the International Space Station. While NASA sees longer space missions, it is looking for ways to provide long-term food to astronauts – and there are few studies on the cultivation of plants without gravity.
Astronauts have grown other crops (such as radishes or lettuce) on the ISS, but peppers are more problematic, especially because they take longer to bear fruit. The project was intended to shed light on how peppers grow in micro-gravity and interact with microbes in this environment.
“An excellent source of vitamin C, peppers are harder to grow than many possible space crops because they take longer to germinate, grow and develop fruit,” a NASA statement explains. “The study includes microbial analysis to improve the understanding of plant-microbe interactions in space and assessment of taste and texture, which varies based on the growing environment and care, such as the amount of irrigation.”
The project started in July and now it was finally harvest time. Although the project was complex (the plant growth system at the space station has 180 sensors and controls for monitoring plant growth and the environment), everything went according to plan, which means that peppers will be on the astronauts’ menu.
The plants are a hybrid Hatch chile, where Hatch is a region of New Mexico famous for its peppers. The seeds come from a cultivar called Española Improved, which has a fairly gentle heat level of about 2,000 SHU units
After the harvest was over, and a few samples were set aside for further research, the astronauts got a taste of their work – with oceanographer and astronaut Megan McArthur making her “best space tacos to date.” The astronauts were to assess the peppers and conduct a study on them, data that NASA will also use for future space crop plans.
If we are to expand our manned exploration area, it is crucial that we develop a system for growing food under these conditions.
“It’s one of the most complex plant experiments at the station to date due to its long germination and growth times,” said Matt Romeyn, lead researcher for the project. “We have previously tested flowering to increase the chance of a successful harvest because astronauts will have to pollinate the peppers to grow fruit.”
For astronauts, growing plants can be about more than just food: it can be a way to relieve some of the stress and pressure in outer space and improve mental and physical well-being.
“Growing colorful vegetables in space can have long-term benefits for physical and mental health,” Romeyn said. “We are discovering that growing plants and vegetables with colors and smells helps improve astronauts’ well-being.”
So far, the astronauts seem to be enjoying both the agricultural process and the end result. The room is getting hot.