plants in space: the basics

Growing plants in space is a new challenge.

The subject of growing plants in space is becoming increasingly relevant as humans look towards extended crewed spaceflight missions in and beyond our solar system.

Plants have evolved to grow on earth, but not in space.  Similar to humans, we must test terrestrial organisms to understand how they adapt and respond to spaceflight.  Plants are not an exception.  We must understand how they are affected by space environmental stress, not just terrestrial stressors.

The Astronaut Analogy.

When people ask what happens to plants in space, we like to give the astronaut analogy.  Our astronauts can and do live in space- but not without consequence.  Like plants, humans have evolved to live in an environment with gravity.  Astronauts experience problems internally and externally when in space.  These are things such as intense exposure to radiation, loss of bone density, muscle mass, problems with vision, and changes in blood and intracranial pressure.

Similarly, plants can and do grow in space- but not without consequence.  For a full list of how plants are affected by spaceflight check out the page below.

Related Page: Stressors of Spaceflight

Plants experience molecular stress during spaceflight.

Current astrobotany research shows that plants change on a molecular level in response to space environments.  Microgravity and ionizing radiation are two unavoidable spaceflight stressors that influence plants in space.

Related Page: Molecular Biology Research

Plants are a critical part of bioregenerative life support systems.

A bioregenerative life support system will be a critical part of human spaceflight expeditions in the future.  One of humanity’s major goals in regards to extensive space travel is to sustain itself in a spacecraft.  We want to eliminate the need for resupply by growing plants in space.  Plants will likely play an important role in supporting human life in space environments by providing sustenance, gas cycling and filtration of water. Not only do we need to feed future astronauts, but we also need to keep them well in the realm of mental health.  Astronauts report feeling very grounded when viewing and tending to plants in space.

Astrobotanist Professor Simon Gilroy answers the question: “How long does it take to grow a tree in space?”