NASA has had agriculture on the mind for quite a few years now. The previous system, cutely known as “Veggie,” grows leafy plants like lettuces, chard, and Chinese cabbage in a substrate pillow – basically, a pad of artificial soil through which water and nutrients are pumped. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station installed the Veggie system in 2014 and harvested in 2015 for the very first time. But NASA has bigger plans for space-farming.
The Advanced Plant Habitat may not have as apt a name as the Veggie, but it’s far more complex and capable, and, says NASA, the first test version arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week.
The APH is much larger than the Veggie – about 25 percent so in both total growth volume and plot size. It also comes with all kinds of new tools to monitor humidity, air velocity, CO2 levels, internal ethylene levels, and more. The lighting system builds on the Veggie’s red, blue, and green lights and adds white, far red, and infrared, which should help more completely simulate the sun. It’ll also have four times the light output of Veggie, according to NASA.
The hope is that with more power, more space, and more controls, the astronauts aboard the ISS will be able to grow larger and more robust plants than before. Space tomatoes? Sure, why not! But for the meantime, the test run is every scientist’s favorite plant, Arabidopsis, a plant in the kale and mustard family that often serves as the lab rat of plants: it’s exceedingly well researched and well understood, so it’s ideal for experiments (researchers recently tested a new way to make photosynthesis more efficient on the same kind if plant.).
Hopefully the tests go well, because the APH is due to head up to the ISS sometime in 2017.