Astronaut Scott Kelly has delightedly announced that the first flower ever to be grown in space has bloomed aboard the International Space Station (ISS). According to The Independent, the plant – a Zinnia – has grown 13 bright orange petals.
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) January 16, 2016
The Zinnia is a genus of plant that belongs within the daisy family. Although vibrant, they aren’t the most strikingly beautiful flowers cultivated by humans. According to a NASA blog explaining the horticultural space-based project, however, beauty wasn’t the point of the experiment.
NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren “activated” the zinnia seed beds last November, in the hope that they’d grow for around 60 days. The Zinnia is a common flower that may indicate how other, more useful plants could grow in microgravity environments.
This first attempt at growing Zinnias was a failure, and melancholy photographs of curled, moldy Zinnia leaves were tweeted by Kelly from the ISS. This recent attempt was clearly more successful, and follows on from the ISS crew’s other successful horticultural project: growing edible, red romaine lettuce.
Both were achieved by using the Veggie system, a growth method that uses colored LEDs to help the plants grow. LEDs, as they waste almost no energy on heat, use 60 percent less energy than traditional plant lighting systems. Red and blue LEDs, which emit the most light, were used to stimulate plant growth in the lettuce, but the green LEDs were also sparingly used in order to make sure the plants grew with a more appealing, less-purple hue.
The next space gardening project, due to start in 2018, will hope to grow tomatoes in low-Earth orbit. All three crops are part of a new space farming project by NASA that aims to understand which crops, particularly edible ones, can be grown not only in microgravity, but also perhaps on the surfaces of nearby planets. Being able to do so would obviously be of great benefit to space travel, as it could prolong missions and perhaps also facilitate colonization of other planets.