A bright orange zinnia has grown for the first time in space, in zero gravity, and without soil. The zinnia, an edible flowering plant, was planted aboard the International Space Station’s Veggie chamber last November to help provide precursory information about other flowering plants that could be grown in space. NASA has already grown plants, such as lettuce and wheat, in space but never a flower has bloomed.
“The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce, said Trent Smith, Veggie project manager. “It is more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics. It has a longer growth duration between 60 and 80 days. Thus, it is a more difficult plant to grow, and allowing it to flower, along with the longer growth duration, makes it a good precursor to a tomato plant.”
Growing flowers proved to be difficult. Just two weeks into the growth period, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren discovered molds on the leaves and the plants in poor health. The molds were attributed to high humidity and low air flow, but before the problem could be fixed, Lindgren had to returned back to Earth. After his departure, another astronaut Scott Kelly took on the role of the autonomous gardener.
Scott Kelly tweeted a picture of a beautiful and healthy zinnia blooming.
Learning to grow vegetables and flowers is crucial for a Mars mission, for the crew will be disconnected from Earth’s supplies for months on end. The trials and tribulations faced while growing the zinnias provided a number of learning opportunities for scientists back on Earth. “The unexpected turns experienced during this Veggie run have actually offered bountiful opportunities for new learning and better understanding of one of the critical components to future journeys to Mars,” NASA wrote in a blog post.
“For crews on the way to Mars, scientists need to know what would happen if crops experienced drought, flooding, mold growth or other challenges. Would the practices of cutting away dead tissue and sanitizing plants work? How does changing the watering schedule affect the growth? How can crew members be given more opportunities to take charge in the gardening process?”
NASA hopes to grow more crops in coming years such as Chinese cabbage, and dwarf tomatoes.