International Space Station Investigation Could Help Food Production Efforts On Earth

By  //  November 8, 2016

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long-duration space missions will grow own food

NASA astronauts Kate Rubins, left, and Shane Kimbrough install the Veggie hardware to begin growing another crop of lettuce on the International Space Station. (NASA Image)

NASA – It’s harvesting time for many crops in North America as winter approaches, but it’s planting season on the International Space Station as new crew members kicked off another run of an investigation that could help food production efforts on Earth.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough configured and installed the hardware for the Veg-03 investigation, including planting six small plant pillows that will grow red romaine lettuce plants. Future long-duration space missions will require crew members to grow their own food.

Understanding how plants respond to microgravity is an important step. Crew members on the station have previously grown lettuce and flowers in the Veggie facility.

This new series of the study expands on previous validation tests. After the lettuce is harvested, crew members will attempt to grow cabbage in orbit.

The investigation has scheduled four harvests over the course of two months.

Veggie provides lighting and necessary nutrients for plants in the form of a low-cost growth chamber and planting pillows, which deliver nutrients for the root system.

Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishi, left, and JAXA astronaut Takuya Onishi take one last peek out of the Earth-facing portal in the cupola to enjoy another sunset on the International Space Station before they returned to Earth with NASA astronaut Kate Rubins Oct. 29. (NASA Image)

The Veggie pillow concept is a low-mass, low-maintenance, modular system that requires no additional energy beyond a special light to help the plants grow. It supports a variety of plant species that can be cultivated for fresh food, and even for education experiments.

Crew members have commented that space gardening is fun, and investigators believe growing plants could provide a psychological benefit to crew members on long-duration missions, just as gardening is often a fun hobby for people on Earth.

Data from this investigation could benefit agricultural practices on Earth by designing systems that use valuable resources, such as water, more efficiently.

The solar arrays of the Cygnus cargo vehicle can be seen as the space station orbited over the Bahamas. (NASA Image)

Kimbrough installed hardware for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Detector for the Analysis of Solar Neutrons investigation. When spacecraft components are exposed to solar neutrons for an extended period, degradation issues may result.

Neutron radiation is also a concern for humans. There is a risk of low-energy neutron exposure while in space, with the potential to suffer from adverse health consequences as a result.

Accurate measurement of the neutron environment inside space vehicles advances development of more effective radiation-shielding materials and methods. This project involves installation of a new type of detector to improve the reliability of identifying these electrically neutral particles. An efficient and compact detector requiring no operational power is well-suited for use aboard spacecraft.

The detector uses special crystals and a thin film of the boron isotope to absorb neutrons, leaving a distinct signature which is then processed and analyzed to determine radiation levels.

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Neutron sources also are widely used in scientific research, including medical and commercial applications. A small and sensitive slow-neutron detector is useful for neutron radiation monitoring.

A similar study monitoring solar radiation is the Dose Distribution Inside the International Space Station-3D (DOSIS-3D) investigation. As one of his last tasks in orbit before returning to Earth on Oct. 29, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Takuya Onishi retrieved 11 detectors for further study.

The DOSIS-3D investigation uses several active and passive detectors to determine the radiation doses. The goal of the ESA (European Space Agency) investigation is creating a 3-D radiation map covering all sections of the outpost, documenting the nature and distribution of the radiation field inside the orbiting laboratory.

On Earth, flight crews and nuclear plant workers are exposed to greater-than-average radiation. DOSIS-3D also provides insight into combining different devices for dosage monitoring and lessons in how to monitor real-time data.

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This could improve radiation monitoring for commercial and military airline crews, as well as other workers exposed to radiation on Earth.

Progress was made on other investigations and facilities this week, including JAXA Protein Crystal Growth, Meteor, JAXA EPO, ACE T-1, EML Batch 1.2c, FLEX-2, MSL Batch 2b, SODI DCMIX, BEAM, Biomolecule Sequencer and Manufacturing Device.

Other human research investigations conducted this week include Airway Monitoring, Biochem Profile, EDOS-2, IMMUNO-2, Fine Motor Skills, Habitability, IPVI, Neuromapping, Dose Tracker, and Space Headaches.

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