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Project Examines How to Water Plants in Space

Astronaut smiles at the camera while working on experiment on the space station
Astronaut Mike Hopkins works with the PWM hydroponics test cell on the space station.
Credits: NASA

Ensuring that plants receive the nourishment they need through proper irrigation is an age-old challenge for farmers here on Earth. It is also a challenge in space. NASA is one step closer to determining the most effective way to provide adequate hydration and aeration for plants to grow in space after completing NASA Glenn’s Plant Water Management (PWM) project.

This project is part of ongoing NASA research to learn how to feed astronaut crews during long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars, as they spend weeks, months, and even years in space.

“In the past, NASA has shown that plant growth in space is feasible as a food source,” said PWM Project Scientist Tyler Hatch. “From a gardening perspective, it’s possible.”

In prior projects, researchers found that providing adequate hydration and aeration to the root zone of the plant in zero gravity is an issue. Roots grow differently in space compared to on Earth due to the difference in gravity.

Hatch’s team worked with plant biologists at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to determine the needs of plants and issues that arise when attempting to grow vegetation on the International Space Station.

Researchers concentrated on the delivery of water throughout the entire life cycle of the plant by looking at two main ways water can reach the plant’s root zone. The first focused on the traditional manner with the use of soil.  The second method involved hydroponics. In this method, no soil is present, and the plant sits directly in water.

Simulated plant with roots shown on space station testbed connected to tubes and monitoring equipment.
The PWM Hydroponics Test Cell was used to help researchers determine the most effective way to provide adequate hydration and aeration for plants to grow in space.
Credits: NASA

The team developed artificial, or simulated, plants for use during the project. Using live plants would pose a challenge, mostly for shelf-life purposes. They used felt fabric, foam, and sponges to create simulated plants that mirrored the root system and evaporation rate of a live plant, among other physical characteristics. This way, the team did not have to match the biology of working with a real plant.

When running the experiment, fruit punch containing nutrients and sugar, helped simulate more Earth-like plant conditions. Additionally, the color of the juice could be easily seen during plant absorption.

Data collection centered on visual aspects of the experiment, and how quickly the plants absorbed the fruit punch. Cameras captured video of the PWM process on the space station, which was then relayed to Glenn researchers.

The PWM project completed the first set of space station operations at the end of February and completed its final iteration in early April. The team gathered valuable data and hopes to run more tests in the future.

“It was rewarding to work on an experiment that went into space and could impact food supplies for future astronauts,” said Hatch. “Running the experiment and obtaining the data within a year or two was an amazing opportunity.”

Adam Schabel
NASA’s Glenn Research Center