One of humanity’s greatest shifts was a switch from hunter-gatherer clans to an agrarian type society. By becoming stewards of the land we had everything to gain. The first era of agriculture paved the way for stability and sustenance that gave rise to the first ancient civilizations. Another era of agriculture is soon to be upon us: we must grow plants in space. Successful cultivation of plants in spaceflight environments will be a key step for the first space civilizations. Just as our ancestors learned to grow crops, we will do the same: in space.
What is astrobotany?
Astrobotany is the study of plant life and their interactions in space environments. This includes understanding plant response for human spaceflight as well as the possibility of plant life on other planets. Astrobotany is an emerging field.
Why astrobotany? What challenges may occur when growing plants in space?
Why is studying astrobotany so important? Plant life is critical to our species on earth and will be necessary on extended spaceflight missions. Sustenance, oxygen/carbon dioxide cycling, and mental health improvement are the important benefits of vegetation systems that make them a key component of human life support. During spaceflight, plants experience a unique environment that poses challenges different than those on Earth. Microgravity, oxidative stress, cold stress and ionizing radiation are just some of the factors of space that impact plant biology. These stressors can affect root growth, nutrient capture and others and subsequently changes the way the plant must be handled. Our future life support systems will very well rely on our understanding of astrobotany.
Check out our webpage Spaceflight Stress to learn more about how spaceflight affects plant biology.
What is astrobotany research?
Astrobotany research relies on basic principles of plant biology research, but the effecting environment is space. Current astrobotanists are skilled plant biologists who study plant spaceflight phenomena. Laboratories can obtain data of interest by securing a space agency (NASA/SpaceX) contract to perform research based on the International Space Station, or they can mimic components of spaceflight using equipment on Earth. Scientists can observe physical changes, measure plant response and analyze genome alteration. Also, engineers who work closely with researchers can use this critical information to create appropriate equipment for plants in space.
History of astrobotany
Discussion and speculation about plants in space has been around since the early 20th century. The Russian astronomer and astrobiology pioneer Gavriil Adrianovich Tikhov was the first to use the term astrobotany.
This paper details a history of astrobotany: