Plants Take Off In Space

As national headlines feature the latest celebrity heading off into outer space as an intergalactic tourist, science departments here in Wisconsin prepare to send tomatoes, lettuce and cotton into orbit.

UW-Madison Professor and botanist Simon Gilroy has been sending plants into space for years. He says there’s plans to use plants to sustain astronauts on long-term missions. But before that, scientists need to know how to do space farming.

Gilroy’s laboratory focuses on how plants sense and respond to their environment and how these signals regulate plant development. What better way to test that out than by removing gravity, Gilroy says. The space station allows scientists to manipulate plants in ways that can’t be done on Earth. His lab looks at these reactions at the cellular level.

Through a partnership with Target, the lab’s latest endeavor has been developing cotton that requires less water. See a video here: Gilroy says it’s worked fantastically well.

And through a project with NASA, the Gilroy Life Science Lab is preparing to send tomatoes to space. Most of Gilroy’s research is funded through NASA. It will take about two years of preparation before space flight. Students make up a majority of the team.

Gilroy also brings to light things that people don’t normally think about when it comes to growing space in zero gravity — when items would be floating around. For example, the plants cannot use soil, cannot be watered with a watering can and needs to be contained before it flowers and releases pollen.