A batch of chile pepper seeds has been grown aboard the International Space Station as part of a new experiment to broaden the spectrum of space-grown foods in preparation for a future voyage to Mars.
The SpaceX Dragon CRS-22 commercial resupply mission delivered 48 Hatch chile pepper seeds to the orbiting outpost on June 5. The red and green chile peppers are now starting to grow as part of NASA’s Plant Habitat-04 experiment, according to a statement released on Tuesday (July 13).
The majority of the fresh food supplies for astronauts come from cargo ships, although earlier versions of the Habitat experiment generated some delightful goodies as well. Crews have eaten space-grown red lettuce, Mizuna mustard and two other lettuce species, as well as radishes, during the last three harvests. Flowering plants, such as zinnias, have also been planted by astronauts to brighten up their living quarters.
This version of the Habitat experiment was started by current Expedition 65 astronaut Shane Kimbrough, who got to taste space-grown outredgeous red romaine lettuce during his 2016 expedition. Unfortunately, Kimbrough, along with the other SpaceX Crew-2 members, will most likely be back on Earth by the time the chile peppers are ripe in four months.
Nonetheless, the crew’s efforts to continue producing space food as part of a bigger study effort to feed people on long space missions were lauded by the experiment team from NASA Kennedy Space Center’s exploration research and technology program. Astronauts will be unable to rely on supplies from Earth once on the moon or Mars, and will have to cultivate more food locally. Habitat research will play a role in this, the team said.
“It is one of the most complex plant experiments on the station to date because of the long germination and growing times,” principal investigator for Plant Habitat-04 Matt Romeyn said in a NASA statement. “We have previously tested flowering to increase the chance for a successful harvest because astronauts will have to pollinate the peppers to grow fruit.”
The experiment is taking place in the Advanced Plant Habitat, one of three plant rooms where astronauts can produce food, flowers, and other commodities. Much of the maintenance work can be done remotely by personnel on the ground at Kennedy Space Center, decreasing astronauts’ hands-on time in space.
In microgravity, astronauts are known to suffer stuffy heads, thus spicy foods are frequently on the menu to urge them to eat. NASA said that the NuMex ‘Espaola Improved’ pepper (a hybrid Hatch pepper) grows naturally in zones such as New Mexico.
Due of its potential for feeding astronauts on trips further away from Earth, researchers spent two years deciding between two dozen species before choosing this one for a space ride.
“We are limited to crops that don’t need storage, or extensive processing,” said Romeyn. All peppers have the added benefit of being high in Vitamin C and other nutrients, making them nutritious as well as tasty. Additionally, the vivid red – which will appear later in the growth cycle – may boost the astronauts’ mental health, Romeyn added, citing previous research that suggest bright veggies are beneficial.
The team will take samples from some of the 48 peppers (if all of the seeds sown mature) and return the rest to Earth for further research. The science team will assess the peppers’ flavor and texture based on feedback from the crew, as well as Scoville measures, which determine the plants’ “heat” or spiciness.
The researchers said this can be influenced by the environment in which the plants were grown, so changing the amount of water, light, and heat the plants receive may actually affect how hot they are.
“The combination of microgravity, light quality, temperature, and rootzone moisture will all affect flavor, so it will be interesting to find out how the fruit will grow, ripen, and taste,” Plant Habitat-04’s project science team lead LaShelle Spencer said in the same NASA statement.
“The food astronauts eat needs to be as good as the rest of their equipment,” Spencer contiuned. “To successfully send people to Mars and bring them back to Earth, we will not only require the most nutritious foods, but the best-tasting ones as well.”