Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are adding a new item to their menu for food grown in space: chili peppers. An experiment has recently started to cultivate the hot peppers in space for the first time.
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough brought 48 chili seeds to the space station’s Advanced Planet Habitat (APH) this week, initiating an experiment called Plant Habitat-04. The goal is to grow the peppers over the next four months and then harvest them to see how they have grown.
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough inserts a device called a Science Carrier into the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), which contains 48 hatch chili pepper seeds that NASA will be growing on July 12, 2021 as part of the Plant Habitat-04 experiment started. Astronauts on the station and a team of researchers from Kennedy will work together to monitor the growth of the peppers for about four months before they are harvested. This will be one of the longest and most demanding plant experiments on board the orbital laboratory. NASA
Although many other vegetables have been grown on the space station, such as pak choi, lettuce, radishes, and more, the chili peppers are up a notch in terms of complexity. For example, while radishes can ripen in a month, the chili peppers require a much longer growing time, making them more difficult to grow.
“Due to the long germination and growth times, it is one of the most complex plant experiments on the station to date,” explains Matt Romeyn, principal researcher for Plant Habitat-04. “We tested the flower beforehand to increase the chance of a successful harvest, as astronauts have to pollinate the peppers in order to grow fruit.”
The point of the experiment is not just to see if vegetables can be grown in space to provide food for astronauts on long-term missions such as an eventual manned mission to Mars. There is also a direct psychological benefit to astronauts in interacting with and caring for live plants and ultimately enjoying the fresh foods they have worked hard to grow.
“Growing colorful vegetables in space can have long-term physical and mental health benefits,” said Romeyn. “We are discovering that growing plants and vegetables with colors and smells helps improve astronauts’ well-being.”
You may be wondering how hot the chili peppers will be, considering that peppers can range from mild to scorching on earth. The variety of pepper chosen for the experiment is the NuMex ‘Española Improved’ pepper, a hybrid hatch pepper, but how hot the space peppers will be is difficult to predict as it depends on a variety of factors.
“The flavor of a paprika is determined by the ecological growing conditions. The combination of microgravity, light quality, temperature and root zone moisture affects the taste, so it will be interesting to find out how the fruit grows, ripens and tastes, ”said LaShelle Spencer, project leader of the PH-04 team.
“This is important because the food astronauts eat must be just as good as the rest of their equipment,” Spencer continued. “To successfully send people to Mars and bring them back to Earth, we need not only the most nutritious but also the best tasting.”