Plant Space Research Update

Credit: NASA. CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques during Veg-04 Water Check and Mass Measurement Device Operations.

Creating a renewable food source in space is essential for a sustainable human presence in space. Plants will likely be an important component of such a sustainable space life support ecosystem for the same reasons they are valuable on Earth. Plants provide both a food source and aesthetic value on Earth. They are also a valuable source of raw materials for products, such as cotton for clothing. In space, they provide the added benefits of recycling exhaled carbon dioxide as well as offering the ability to recycle other human waste. There is also the hope that growing plants in thematic environments of space will lead to new botanical discoveries that will be beneficial to Earth agriculture.

For over fifty years, scientists have been researching whether plants can grow in space and how they react to the space environment. That effort continues. This article will identify and discuss recent space research and its significance.

Plant research must occur in a suitable place in space. That space must be capable of providing a suitable pressure and temperature, radiation protection, and communications capabilities. Although it is possible to construct such an environment in a standalone satellite, locating plant experiments in a location that already possesses those characteristics, such as space stations, tends to be much more convenient. There are presently two such stations: the International Space Station (ISS) and the Chinese Tiangong space station. Most contemporary plant research in space is conducted in these two locations. There are two recent exceptions. First was the Chinese Chang’e 4 lunar spacecraft (2018–2019) on which cotton plants were grown for a short time. The other was the European Eu:CROPIS satellite (2018–2019) which made it to space, but then experienced a malfunction.

This article focuses on research conducted on the ISS. There are currently two chief facilities for plant experiments there. The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is suitable for more rigorous plant experiments that require considerable environmental control and sensing. The VEGGIE chamber is suitable for a range of experiments, and is especially well suited for growing. There are sometimes other facilities which will be covered in a future story.

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STEM Growth Chamber Project

Arduino and battery atop a cube containing plants

STEM Plant Cube version 1.0


The known Universe is 92 billion lightyears in size. Yet, ironically, volume available for plant experiments in space is often limited to mere centimeters. This presents a challenge for growing plants in space for food, research and other purposes.

Consequently, inspired by the cube sat movement, SustainSpace has been developing a suite of 1U–2U cube form plant growth chambers involving minimal volume and mass. Ultimately intended for space research, SustainSpace is also developing an inexpensive STEM version for educational use on Earth, using “off-the-shelf” components.

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A New Frontier In Life Support with the I-HAB

Cylinder module with solar cell wings

I-HAB module (Credit: ESA)

I-HAB, a seldom-discussed component of the Lunar Gateway, could have an out-sized impact on the advancement of life support systems. This module is chiefly devoted to human habitation and life support. It is being developed primarily under the auspices of the European Space Agency who has devoted significant resources towards the development of closed-loop life support. Therefore, discussion of this module deserves to be revisited.

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Nanoracks StarLab AgTech Space Farming Center

Spacestation module with cube greenhouses attached

Rendering of greenhouses mounted externally to the Nanoracks Bishop Airlock on the ISS. Credit: Nanoracks / Mack Crawford

The Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) has announced that they are partnering with Nanoracks via their Agriculture Technology (AgTech) Incentive Program, an effort that supports the development of cutting-edge programs to boost the emirate’s AgTech capabilities and promote innovation.

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Book Review: Revolutionary Understanding of Plants

many chili peppers

Will plant intelligence compel future spacefarers to carry chili peppers? © Tomas Castelazo. CC BY-SA 4.0.

Stefano Mancuso’s book The Revolutionary Understanding of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior (2017) makes the case that plants are an often ignored, under-appreciated and yet extremely intelligent life form that has the ability to solve human sustainability challenges and even can teach us how to better govern ourselves.

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Orbital Genomics concept

In addition to blogging, SustainSpace engages in concept and product development. SustainSpace authors Afshin Khan and Mark Ciotola have developed the Oribital Genomics venture converted with astro culture. Recently, the Orbital Genomics concept won ESA Space Explorations Masters prize. 


Plants provide food, breathable air and psychological benefits. With plans materializing for a Deep Space Gateway, Lunar Village and the Mars community, there may be a lot more people living in the lower Earth orbit and microgravity environments, besides on the International Space Station. However, food production in space is still in its nascent stage. Existing prepackaged astronaut food is not a healthy option for long haul space missions. There is no way to regularly transport fresh fruit and vegetables. It is becoming increasingly evident that we must be able to successfully grow food in space.


Plant experiments done on ISS have presented various challenges, such as, years of preparation, little iteration and fewer conclusive results. Furthermore, ISS is limited in its genetic analysis capabilities and there are limited astronaut hours for dedicated biological analysis. Hence, for at least the next decade or more, most analysis of plants and seeds grown in space must be accomplished on Earth, which is not feasible.


Agile approaches by Orbital Genomics aims to adapt, develop and finally grow crops in space to solve the food production challenge in lower Earth orbit and planetary bodies of interest. Additionally benefit agriculture on Earth.

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