Fact sheet number: FS-2001-03-47-MSFC
How can industry take advantage of growing plants in the unique microgravity environment created as the International Space Station orbits Earth? The Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- a NASA Commercial Space Center with partners in industry and academia -- is dedicated to helping industry explore the possibilities.
With the help of NASA's Space Product Development Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., this Commercial Space Center has developed a series of plant growth units dedicated to conducting plant biotechnology research sponsored by commercial companies. The plant growth units are designed especially to operate in the microgravity or low-gravity environment created as the Space Station orbits Earth.
This will be the first plant growth facility installed in the International Space Station. The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ fills two middeck lockers and builds on a smaller experiment flown on eight previous space flights on the Space Shuttle and on Space Station Mir.
The objectives of the first ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ experiment are (1) to determine whether Arabidopsis, a member of the Brassica plant family that includes species such as cabbage and radishes, can complete its seed-to-seed life cycle in microgravity; (2) to determine the impact of microgravity on the gene expression levels - the plant's traits that are determined genetically; and (3) to compare the chemical characteristics of the seeds produced in space with seeds harvested on Earth.
Space Explorers Inc., the commercial partner for this investigation, specializes in producing Internet-based, space education programs.Space Explorers has created and marketed the "Orbital Laboratory" program -- a school kit and Internet multi-media educational program that allows students to design, conduct and analyze the space experiment on the International Space Station. Using the kit, students can compare data through an online student experiment database. After the experiment is finished on the Space Station, students can use actual data from the experiment to recreate the experiment in a virtual environment.
The program is the first-ever, student-designed experiment aboard the Station, and the first of a series of commercial payloads used for educational purposes by Space Explorers. The program is being marketed to the kindergarten through high school education community worldwide. For a special price, schools can purchase a kit containing the necessary materials to conduct the plant experiment. They also receive access to the Orbital Laboratory curricula, to plant data from the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ experiment on board the Station and to data from other participating schools worldwide. As part of the program, they can participate in Web chats with personnel involved in the mission and have access to many other program features. The product will also be sold as a retail product for home schools and consumers.
Starting with Space Station Expedition Two, plant scientists will be able to conduct long-term plant research in a microgravity environment. They will be able to study the entire plant life cycle -- from seeds to plants to seeds.
To accomplish this, the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ provides a completely enclosed, environmentally controlled plant growth chamber that was successfully demonstrated inside the ASTROCULTURE™ during Shuttle and Mir missions. The growth chamber is larger, enabling plants to grow bigger. The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ controls temperature, humidity, light, atmospheric conditions and delivery of nutrients to plants. It requires no power during Shuttle ascent and descent.
Before the flight, scientists will plant seeds in a root tray using a dry rooting material similar to peat moss. The seed tray will be attached to the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ growth chamber. Reservoirs in the growth unit will be loaded with water and nutrient solutions that plants need to live while aboard the Space Station.
The equipment is configured as two middeck lockers that insert separately into a Space Station EXPRESS Rack. One locker contains the support systems and the other contains the plant growth chamber and ancillary hardware. This arrangement allows the support system to remain on board, while the Shuttle transports plant growth units to and from the Space Station with different experiments.
Both units will be placed aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor for the STS-100 mission scheduled to launch in April 2001, and to dock with the Space Station during Flight 6A. On the ninth day of the mission, the crew will move the two middeck lockers to the U. S. Laboratory Module, Destiny, and install the lockers in the top shelves of EXPRESS Rack No. 1. No later than 17 days after the launch, the crew will activate the growth chamber by turning on the temperature and humidity control unit.
The system will automatically deliver fluid and nutrients to the root tray, and the seeds will germinate. The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ will operate automatically for 50 to 55 days, approximately two months. During the plant growth period, the crew will sample nutrients, gases and plant transpiration inside the plant growth chamber three times -- early, middle and late in the experiment. After the flight, investigators can analyze the samples to determine how healthy the plants were during various growth phases.
On a routine basis, the crew will monitor the plants' status by checking displays on the front panel of the support system unit and by observing the plant video. Science telemetry and video from the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ will be transmitted to scientists in their operations center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison via the Telescience Resource Kit (TReK) system.
At thirty days, or about halfway into the experiment, the crew will replenish the nutrient solution by refilling the nutrient reservoir to maintain the desired concentration of nutrients. The experiment will end in about 50 to 55 days when the plants are expected to produce mature seeds. The growth unit along with the enclosed plants will be returned to Earth at the end of Expedition Two on Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-105 mission, ISS Flight 7A.1. After landing, the growth unit will be returned to scientists for analysis.
The Space Shuttle will deliver a second growth unit containing a different species of plant to the Space Station two months later during Expedition Four, ISS Flight UF1. The support system will remain installed in EXPRESS Rack No. 1 inside Destiny between growth chamber flights. It will be returned to Earth every one to two years for refurbishment.
The ASTROCULTURE™ plant growth chamber, a precursor to the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™, has flown on six Space Shuttle flights and one long-duration Shuttle/Mir mission. On STS-95 in October/November 1998, a commercial company sponsored a miniature rose experiment and has used their findings to enhance product development. Other plants that have flown inside the ASTROCULTURE™ include wheat, mustard plants and potatoes.
Plants provide people with food, clothing materials, and other useful products needed to sustain life. As NASA continues to explore the solar system, flight crews may need to grow plants on other planets that have different gravity levels. To grow plants on the Moon or Mars, scientists must learn if plants can be grown in space.
This is the first Space Station experiment in which plants will be grown long enough to determine if they can produce seeds, and if those seeds can be used to grow more plants. Since the Space Station will remain in orbit for longer than a decade, it provides an ideal laboratory for growing plants and studying the influence gravity has played as plants evolved on Earth.
Prior experiments with soybean gene transfer suggest that the Agrobacterium-based transformation technique -- the process of using bacteria to transfer desirable genes, such as those that enhance disease resistance to plants -- work more effectively in microgravity.
Scientists recently announced that they had mapped the entire genetic code of a plant for the first time. The celebrated plant was the mustard plant, which is also a member of the Arabidopsis family, the same plant group selected for the Expedition Two flight. Researchers are predicting this genetic map will make genetic modification of crops more refined, precise, predictable, and thus safer and more accepted by consumers. The ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ experiments explore the benefits of using microgravity to create tailor-made crops that withstand inhospitable climates, resist pestilence, and need less space to grow. These are all qualities that would also benefit future space explorers growing plants on new worlds.
As with any new technology, there are often unexpected technologies that benefit people on Earth. As they built their plant growth chambers, the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics needed a light source that would be small but provide enough energy to stimulate plant growth.
Researchers discovered that lights very similar to those designed to grow plants inside ASTROCULTURE™ could be made to emit wavelengths of light that stimulates tumor-killing drugs and heals wounds. NASA is funding research by physicians at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee to study how these related light-emitting diodes can provide valuable medical treatments for people on Earth and in space.
More information on the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ experiment and other experiments is available at: