Though it may be winter down here on earth, flowers are now in bloom for the first time up in space. On the International Space Station, NASA is successfully growing zinnia flowers as part of its larger project named the Vegetable Production System (or Veggie, for short). NASA's latest announcement helps to usher in a slew of possibilities for its growing capabilities, as well as its astronauts who depend on vegetation as both a food source and form of recreation.
The ISS' Veggie facility is a low-cost growth chamber that provides plants with lighting, nutrients, and planting "pillows" that provide additional nourishment for the roots. The task of physically growing the plants is just the baseline of the project, however — in addition to providing recreation for astronauts on long-duration missions, the plants may also be used for fresh food and educational outreach.
The long-term goal is to determine how plants sense and respond to gravity. And by assessing the data collected from the Veggie project and subsequent investigation, researchers may be able to determine how to make agricultural systems down here on Earth more efficient.
The project was originally installed in March 2013 and is expected to make its return trip home in March 2016. The timely blooming of these new zinnia flowers therefore makes an important point — it demonstrates another use of the Veggie facility, which was originally used to grow lettuce for the astronauts to eat.
The flowering plants offer up another, different opportunity for creating a new food source in space. By studying and cultivating how to grow flowering plants in microgravity specifically, researchers hope to be able to grow other edible flowering plants, like tomatoes.
All of this is pertinent to securing the health of NASA's astronauts, not to mention, it plays a bigger role in how we may live ourselves one day. If humans ever make the leap from Earth to permanently occupying another planet, we'll have to be able to grow our own food in space. Plans of space colonization are becoming a reality, with coveted one-way tickets to Mars already going to scientists, billionaires, and regular folks alike. What was once bound to science fiction novels is steadily blasting into our everyday lives.
So even if a little flower may seem like no big deal right now, it may very well be vital to our survival as a species in the not-too-distant future.