Plant Science: In Space

This week our plant science lessons are taking a bit of a detour and going on a long trip. In fact, is honor of World Space Week we're investigating growing plants in space.

You may have heard some of the buzz about the new movie The Martian starring Matt Damon (see info and trailer). The premise is that an astronaut is accidentally left on Mars and has to figure out how to fend for himself, which involves growing plants for food under extreme conditions. The movie's popularity makes it a perfect time to get kids excited not only about science in general, but also plant science (botany) in particular.

Background Information

There are many reasons to grow plants in space. The most prominent, of course, is to provide food for long journeys or for colonies on other planets like Mars. Growing plants also remove carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, which can be important for long term survival. Plants may also produce and help regulate humidity in confined areas, can be used to purify water, and/or serve to detect certain environmental toxins.

Glossary:

Microgravity- When in space, people and objects seem to be weightless. The term microgravity reminds us that even in the conditions of space, gravity is still acting.

seedling-in-paper-pot

Tropism - Plants can exhibit directional growth in response to certain stimuli. Examples of tropisms include hydrotropism (growth in response to moisture levels), phototropism (growth in response to light), thigomotropism (growth in response to touch or contact), and gravitropism (growth in response to gravity). NASA has a short video about tropisms.

Resources and Lessons:

There are a number of plant science in space resources and lessons  available from sources online. Let's take a look at a few of them.

1. The University of Florida Space Plants Lab is using our old friend Arabidopsis to study plant growth under microgravity conditions. This video from Science Friday explains some of their goals and findings.

Keep up with their research at the Exploring Space Blog.

2. Wisconsin Fast Plants and Space

Wisconsin Fast Plants® are cultivars of Brassica rapa that have been selected to complete their live cycles extremely rapidly (in about one month). Their fast growth makes them ideal for experiments in space.

Wisconsin Fast Plants® website has a Fast Plants in Space activity resource page, which includes links to:

  • Plants in Space on the International Space Station (see details below)
  • Farming in Space
  • Tumbling in Space activity (investigating gravitropism)
  • Astroplants in Space

Wisconsin Fast Plants® are available online from sources such as Amazon (contains affiliate links)

Wisconsin Fast Plants® Standard Seed, Pack of 50

Wisconsin Fast Plants® F1 Hairless Non-Purple Stem, Pack of 50 Seeds


3. Plants in Space on the International Space Station

In the fall of 2011, a group of agencies* banded together for the Plants in Space experiments on the International Space Station. Resources for the project are archived at BioEd Online, and include a 21-page teacher's guide to download for free. These experiments used Fast Plants®, but could be performed using other fast-growing alternatives (for example, Rapid Radishes from Ward Scientific).

Although the experiments on the International Space Station have been completed, there are still many ways to use the project as a jumping off point for further studies. Watch the introductory video (also available on the website) for many ideas for designing plant science experiments.

*The agencies included Center for Educational Outreach, Baylor College of Medicine, in collaboration with BioServe Space Technologies of the University of Colorado, and the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Funding was also provided by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

4. Tumbling Plants:  Gravitropism Experments

a. In the above video from Plants in Space, the narrator suggests investigating the effect of gravity on plant growth by designing a device that rotates the plants every thirty seconds, thus removing the directional aspect. Although it is not completely clear, apparently Dr. Vogt uses a Lego Mindstorms Nxt to program the rotation of the plant.

b. Seed spinner with littleBits and Fast Plants®

In another version of the same experiment, microgravity conditions are simulated by rotating the plants via littleBits electronics combined with snap cubes and a petri dish.

5. NASA's Plants in Space lesson plans

NASA also has some Plants in Space lesson plans. These contain a range of related activities, not just plant science.

Educator Guides available on the website:
•    Moon Munchies Educator Guide (Grades K-4)
•    Packing Up for the Moon Educator Guide (Grades 5-8)
•    Lunar Plant Growth Chamber Educator Guide (Grades 9-12)

Conclusion

Investigating how plants grow in outer space expands our horizons, but it will also help us better understand how plants grow here on Earth. Hopefully the links will inspire you to try some plant science experiments with your children/students.

Do you have any questions or more plants in space activities to suggest? Feel free to leave us a comment.

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Plant-Science-Lessons

To see our complete plant science lessons, either visit the plant science category (newest posts to oldest posts) or the plant science section of our experiment archive page (links to posts in order).

For more activities, try our Gardening/Plant Science for Kids Pinterest board.

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