EAST LANSING — NASA launched a spacecraft last week that will travel beyond the moon and back…and there’s a piece of MSU on board.
The US space agency launched its uncrewed Artemis I mission on Wednesday, November 16, carrying experiments that researchers hope will answer questions that may allow astronauts to endure longer spaceflights in the future. Among the experiments is one from Michigan State University that will look at how food can be grown in space.
MSU is one of four experiments selected by NASA’s Aerospace Biology Program, according to a press release. The program hopes to gain a better understanding of how terrestrial biology is affected by deep space travel.
Other research efforts on board include the University of Colorado Boulder’s yeast experiment, as well as the fungus experiment led by the Marine Research Laboratory and the photosynthetic algae experiment from the nonprofit Medical Research Institute.
This is the third time that the MSU lab led by Federica Brandizzi, MSU Foundation Professor in the School of Natural Sciences and MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, has sent an experiment aboard a NASA mission. Her team’s previous experiments sought to understand the unique pressures in space and how plants respond to them.
“It’s great to have the possibility to work with NASA,” Brandisi said. NASA is a truly amazing agency that is pushing the boundaries of knowledge. I am so grateful that they have given me and the state of Michigan the possibility to explore new horizons and push the boundaries of new knowledge.”
She said that when plants go into space, or seeds in this experiment, they face many variables they would never experience on Earth, including a loss of gravity and higher levels of radiation.
“We hope to learn how plants sustain alien life,” Brandisi said. “Space flight comes with tremendous stress for any organism that has not evolved to live in space.”
According to the press release, plants become weightless without Earth’s gravity among the variants. Without the protective atmosphere that Earth provides, plants would see higher doses of cosmic rays.
NASA launched the mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida after months of delays, including technical problems and Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida in September.
Artemis 1 is the first in a series of missions that will grow in complexity toward building a long-term human presence on the Moon, according to NASA information.
The spacecraft is expected to travel 1.3 million miles in just over 25 days, including passing about 40,000 miles past the Moon, before returning to Earth on December 11, according to a NASA press release.
Scientists know, because of past experiments, that plants growing in space produce lower levels of the amino acid that keeps seedlings going strong on Earth, according to a press release. These amino acids have nutritional value for people who eat plants.
Some of the seeds that Brandisi and her lab sent in were enriched with amino acids, and others were natural seeds, according to the press release. Through the experiment, they hope to see if fortifying seeds on Earth with amino acids might lead to a more sustainable way to grow healthy plants, and eventually food, in space.
Brandisi’s team sent cress seeds on the mission. They’re a plant species popular in science, according to the press release, and although the plant isn’t grown as a form of food, the researchers say what they’ve learned could translate to plants grown as food.
Brandisi said the researchers expect the effect of radiation and other factors on the amino acids found in the seeds. Ultimately, the results of Brandizi and her team’s research could help determine which plants are the best to send into space.
She said Brandisi’s team had previously grown plants on the International Space Station, and found that the plants did not grow there as well as they do on Earth.
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