NASA Astronauts Grow Flowers On The ISS Paving Way To Grow Food In Space

Anne Sewell

The ability to grow vegetables for food in space is imperative to enable man to travel further and with the successful growth of zinnia flowers, tomatoes are now definitely an option.

Early in 2015, the astronauts aboard the ISS successfully grew red romaine lettuce, which is an accomplishment in itself. However, growing zinnia flowers is a whole new kettle of fish, so to speak.

On Saturday, Astronaut Scott Kelly proudly tweeted a photo of the first zinnia flowers grown up in space on the International Space Station (ISS).

— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 16, 2016

"Growing zinnia plants will help advance our knowledge of how plants flower in the Veggie growth system, and will enable fruiting plants like tomatoes to be grown and eaten in space using Veggie as the in-orbit garden."

In order to attempt deeper space missions – including man traveling to the planet Mars – the research into growing plants successfully on the ISS could prove to be invaluable. This would allow the astronauts to use the Veggie system on a future space craft to grow their own food. NASA's Veggie system reportedly uses red, blue and green LED lights to simulate sunlight, which has led to the successful flowering of the zinnia plant.

Researchers have said that besides the obvious benefit of growing food in space, having live plants on board the ISS and any future space craft would also be good for crew morale.

It reportedly wasn't an easy task to get to this stage, however, as there were problems experienced along the way. As reported in a recent NASA blog, Smith said the zinnia plant is more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics than the lettuce previously grown and has a longer growth duration of between 60 and 80 days. However, finding a way to grow the plants to the flowering stage makes an excellent precursor to growing tomato plants.

There were problems along the way and at one stage Scott Kelly tweeted an image of leaves on the zinnia plants on the ISS. Water had begun seeping from the leaves, which eventually made them moldy.

Three of the zinnia plants were reportedly partially engulfed in this water and within 10 days the astronauts tending the plants noted what is termed guttation on the leaves of some of the zinnias. This is reportedly caused when internal pressure builds in the plant, forcing the excess water from the tips of the leaves (pictured above).

On top of this, the leaves of the zinnias started to bend and curl in a condition known as "epinasty" which can indicated flooding in the roots of the plant. This reportedly pointed to a problem with the air flow in the plant growth change which, if coupled with the excess water, could lead to huge problems.

Smith said that after noting the water seeping from the leaves, the NASA scientists experimented by toggling the Veggie fan from low to high in order to dry things out. However, while this experiment was still running, an unplanned spacewalk in mid-December interrupted things and tissue in the leaves of some of the plants began to die.

Smith said this was causing even more problems, saying, "When you have high humidity and wet surfaces, leaves start dying, and become prime real estate for mold to grow."

After much discussion, it was decided that Kelly would take over the zinnia garden and eventually things started going well again. Kelly made a humorous reference to the movie The Martian when he took over the job.

— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) December 27, 2015

— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 8, 2016

In other related news, the Inquisitr recently reported that NASA is preparing planetary defense against the possibility of Earth being hit by an asteroid or other space junk.

[Photo via NASA]