NASA will literally spice up future trips to Mars

With the PH-04 experiment, NASA is looking to grow peppers that will be precious allies for astronauts.

If all goes well, the astronauts of the International Space Station will soon be able to tickle their taste buds with the first space peppers. This tasting will be part of a series of experiments in microgravity culture of the NASA, with the aim of diversifying the diet of astronauts during long missions.

It all started on June 5, with the delivery of 48 shoots by a SpaceX-stamped freighter. These were received and put in place by astronaut Shane Kimbrough. His name may ring a bell; he is a former mission partner of our national Thomas Pesquet. A gardener everything, since this space veteran has already proven that he has a green thumb. In 2016, he was responsible for setting up a batch of space salads for a similar experience.

Unfortunately, he will probably not have time to reap the fruits of this new stage; he will certainly be back on Earth by the time the peppers mature, in four months. It is moreover this time of growth which represents the main challenge of this culture; the longer a plant takes to grow, the more difficult it is to achieve good results.

An ally on the plate …

If NASA is putting so much effort and technology into these few plants, it’s not just for the sake of innovating. Like all plants grown aboard the ISS, the chili variety was carefully chosen for its nutritional qualities, during a two-year breeding process. Among the twenty or so varieties tested, it was the NuMex “Española Improved” pepper that won the day.

Like all varieties of chili, this one is full of vitamins C and other nutrients essential for our metabolism. But its benefits are not limited to the strictly physiological aspect. By dint of living in microgravity, astronauts tend to temporarily lose some of their taste and smell. It is therefore not always easy to enjoy your meals; astronauts therefore tend to favor spicy or seasoned dishes. “The food that astronauts eat must be as good as the rest of their equipment ”, says LaShelle Spencer, who leads the project team.To send people to Mars and bring them back to Earth, the most nutritious food will not be enough, it will also need the tastiest.

… But also in the head

Another notable advantage: chilli does not need special storage or preparation, which are two of the main limitations for cultivation in the ISS. There is also another aspect, more unexpected this time, to take into account: the color. Indeed, the astronauts of the ISS constantly evolve in an uninviting setting. On board a space station, it goes without saying that decoration is not a priority; the astronauts’ environment is almost entirely made up of cables and metal panels.

Living conditions that can have a tangible impact on the morale of the troops. Colorful plants, such as chilli, help break this monotony and act as a visual antidepressant. “Growing plants in space can have long-term benefits for physical and psychological health”, explains Matt Romeyn, one of the program’s managers.

Shoots under close surveillance

To help them take care of their little ones, astronauts have the most sophisticated baby monitor in the world: an automated system called Advanced Plant Habitat (APH). This little gem of technology is equipped with 180 sensors and controls to monitor and facilitate plant growth. The latter, enclosed in a clay pot, will automatically receive microdoses of a fertilizer developed specifically for this variety. NASA ground crews will also keep an eye on it; the temperature, humidity or partial oxygen pressure of the shoots will be continuously monitored.

Astronaut Shane Kimbrough strikes a pose in front of the Advanced Plant Habitat, before inserting the chili sprouts. © NASA

Once the peppers are ripe, the astronauts will first make sure that they are edible. If necessary, they will keep some of it for a well-deserved spicy note. The others will be repatriated to Earth, where they will undergo a whole battery of tests. They will thus determine its position on the Scoville scale, which classifies foods from the mildest to the spiciest. But above all, they will compare them with peppers grown on Earth. This will allow them to observe the influence of the particular conditions of the ISS, in particular microgravity. They will be able to study how these parameters will determine the growth, maturity, and especially the taste of peppers.

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