Fact sheet number: FS-2002-03-75-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 companies explore the possibilities.
With the help of NASA's Space Product Development Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics has developed a series of plant growth units dedicated to conducting plant biotechnology research sponsored by commercial companies.
For this experiment, the Wisconsin center is collaborating with Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., to grow soybeans in space and determine if these space-grown plants produce seeds with unique chemical composition. Pioneer is the world's leading developer and supplier of seeds, used by farmers in 70 countries to produce soybeans, corn, wheat, sorghum, canola, sunflower, alfalfa, millet and rice. Pioneer's soybean research program develops proprietary soybean varieties that have unique traits, such as disease resistance, increased oil production, and improved oil quality. These traits make farming more efficient and increase farmers' profits.
This experiment builds on proven ASTROCULTURE™ technologies flown on seven previous space flights on the Space Shuttle and one flight on the Russian space station Mir. During the International Space Station Expedition Two in 2001, the first ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ plant growth unit was used to grow the first plants to produce seeds on the Space Station. A follow-on experiment during Expedition Four will be completed with the return of the growth chamber on Space Shuttle flight STS-110.
The growth chamber is large enough to allow taller plants and plants that spread to be grown for the first time in space. 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 flight, scientists will plant Pioneer® brand 9306 soybean seeds in a root tray, which is then attached to the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ growth chamber. Reservoirs in the growth unit are loaded with water and nutrient solutions that plants need to live while aboard the Space Station.
The equipment is configured as two, single middeck lockers that the crew inserts separately into a Space Station EXPRESS Rack. The locker containing the support systems typically remains onboard for 1-2 years. Astronauts will install the plant growth chamber containing the soybean seeds after the Shuttle delivers it to the Station. This arrangement allows the support system to remain on board, while the Shuttle transports plant growth units to and from the Station with different experiments.
This experiment will operate for approximately 70 days. After the crew starts the experiment, soybeans will germinate, grow and produce seeds. Video and data will be sent to the telescience center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison so scientists can monitor the plants as they grow. The plants and seeds will be returned to the ground this summer by Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-112.
Scientists at Pioneer will analyze the chemical composition of the seeds, including all of the important traits that affect the value of soybeans as food and animal feed. If the space-produced seeds have desirable unique traits, the scientists will plant the seeds on the ground to see if the traits are inherited from one generation to the next.
Soybeans are the largest single source of protein and oil in the American diet, representing a multi-billion-dollar market share in the food and animal feed industries. This research may result in soybeans with improved oil, protein, or carbohydrate content, as well as secondary metabolites, such as hormones, of commercial value.
This will be the first soybean seed-to-seed experiment in space. It will demonstrate that the technologies used to build the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ can support the production of a variety of crop plants in space.
Since the Space Station will remain in orbit for more than a decade, these technologies also could provide ideal tools for growing vegetable crops to support a long-term human presence in space and for studying how gravity has influenced plant evolution on Earth.
More information on the ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ experiment, other Expedition Five experiments and Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc. is available at: