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When We All Move to Space, We’ll Have to Be Picky About Houseplants

Space plants 1280x720 opt v2 by Aida Amer

Which plant would you take with you on a long trip to Mars? Great article from Atlas Obscura

An ideal candidate, first of all, would be a plant that isn’t too thirsty. Of the many factors that frustrate horticulture in microgravity, “The biggest problem we’ve had is water,” says Matt Romeyn, a biologist working on NASA’s vegetable production team at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Water doesn’t behave in microgravity the way it does on Earth, where gravity helps it move along to hydrate soil particles and root hairs before excess flows away. On the ISS, it both sticks everywhere and seeps out of containers built to hold it. In microgravity, water forms spheres, which can hang around as “big globs around roots, depriving them of oxygen,” says Chris Wolverton, a plant physiologist at Ohio Wesleyan University whose NASA-funded research focuses on the effects of gravity on plants. Water has slaughtered many green things trying to make a go of it in space. “If you don’t kill the plant by the water glomming onto it and forming a big, wet pocket,” Wolverton says, “you also provide this great environment for fungi, which are notorious for inhabiting space vehicles, and could infest the plant and kill it.”

So the less water to wrangle, the better, both because it must be administered so precisely and because it is such a precious resource to begin with. On the ISS, for instance, much of the water for the plants is repurposed from astronauts’ urine, sweat, and breath. “Then, as the plants give off water vapor through the process of transpiration through their leaves, that water is recondensed in the environment and put back through the system,” says Gioia Massa, a NASA scientist studying plants in microgravity. Thus, Wolverton recommends some kind of succulent, which wouldn’t have major water demands.

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