NASA Still Aims For ‘Space Salad’: Plant growth experiment hitching a ride on Atlas V to ISS.

Slated for liftoff from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday will be Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft filled with 2,200 pounds of science experiments including the Advanced Plant Habitat, which seeks to improve efficiency, reliability and robustness of plant grown on the International Space Station.

The new experiment builds on the success of 2015’s “Veggie” growth system that was also developed with Orbital. That one featured the memorable red romaine lettuce, and was consumed by ISS astronauts on board Expedition 44 including Scott Kelly during his one year in space mission. The plants were red because the light source for growth in space used only red and blue LED lights, which are more efficient than green, and thus no green, leafy effect.

“Blue and red wavelengths are the minimum needed to get good plant growth,” said Dr. Ray Wheeler back in 2015. Wheeler is the lead for Advanced Life Support activities in the Exploration Research and Technology Programs Office at Kennedy Space Center. “They are probably the most efficient in terms of electrical power conversion. The green LEDs help to enhance the human visual perception of the plants, but they don’t put out as much light as the reds and blues.”

For this new plant experiment, which will be installed on the space station’s EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to Space Station (EXPRESS) rack, the growth and harvesting will take place for at least a year. ISS crew will be able to harvest the crops using embedded glove ports. The new plant experiment can grow plants to about 17 inches tall in a 56-square-foot area.

And the light source will use green too, so no more “Outredgeous” red romaine lettuce.

Eating food grown in space isn’t like picking a leaf and munching down. Astronauts had to basically use citric-acid-based wet wipes to clean them before consumption. The first space growth was done in May 2014 with seeds for both romaine lettuce as well as zinnias.

Successful plant growth in space is part of NASA’s plans to help support long-distance space exploration, with both nutritional benefits being evaluated as well as psychological benefits, meaning the notion of caring for a little piece of green Earth while millions of miles away.

The resupply mission is planned to launch on board the Cygnus module that is named in honor of late astronaut John Glenn atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The launch window is slated top open at 11:11 a.m. Tuesday.

This is the seventh mission for Orbital ATK to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract.

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