Mold In Space: Fungus Kills Space Station Zinnias Plants Following Successful Lettuce Harvest

Fungus has attacked the zinnia plants on the International Space Station, killing three of the experimental plants. The Veggie experiment facility located on the space station was put into place to test the safety and ability to grow food in space. The death of the zinnias, a precursor plant being tested before dwarf tomatoes, come following two successful lettuce harvests by the astronaut gardeners.

Space.com reports that three of the International Space Station’s zinnia plants have died. The plants were part of the station’s Veggie experiment, which is testing the ability of food to grow in space. The plants were killed by mold, which was caused by excessive water. The ISS Commander and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly was the one to report the growing mold problem to Mission Control. Kelly messaged in about the sickly plants on December 22, 2015. Scott then posted an image of the sickly flowers to his Twitter account, noting that this “would be a problem on Mars.”

However, it appears that even before astronaut Scott Kelly messaged Mission Control about the sad state of the zinnias, the official Veggie principal investigator Trent Smith was trying to manage the excessive water problem. Smith says that he noticed the problem a few days before in photographs that were sent of the zinnias. He says that he could see the water and was trying to relay a command from NASA to the station’s operators to increase fan speed to help remove some of the moisture. Sadly for the zinnias, the mold developed before the fan speed was increased.

The three moldy plants were placed in bags and frozen for evaluation back on Earth, while the remaining pods in the Veggie experiment were sanitized and left to hopefully make a comeback. Though three of the zinnias didn’t make it out of the ISS alive, with the moisture level adjusted, the other plans seem to now be thriving. On January 8, 2016, astronaut Scott Kelly posted a photo of a much healthier looking zinnia plant to his Twitter, noting that some of the plants were on the rebound.

The Veggie experiment is being performed by NASA and hopes to pave the way for a brighter future of space travel complete with fresh food and recreation for the crew.

“Plants brighten homes and offices on Earth, and the same is true for space. Veggie hardware validation test (Veg-01) provides lighting and nutrient supply for a space garden, supporting a variety of plant species that can be cultivated for educational outreach, fresh food and even recreation for crew members on long-duration missions.”

The experiment has featured two separate lettuce harvests, the first of which was sent back to Earth for testing as to whether it was safe to eat. The second harvest was eaten by the crew on the space station. The crew note that safety precautions are in place when eating the fresh space veggies as the lettuce is washed with an antibacterial before consumption.

The hope of the experiment is to one day be able to offer astronauts real fresh food items on long-duration space flights. The experiment will be especially helpful for future missions to Mars and potentially for growing food on space colonies.

What do you think about the International Space Station’s Veggie experiment? Did you know they were growing veggies in space for consumption?

[Image via NASA Image/ISS040E009124]