News

What Goes Up. . .

USU equipment coming down on Mir, but new device going up to new space station;
Space Station Will Host USU Experiment
By Greg Lavine
The Salt Lake Tribune
March 15, 2001

When remnants from the Russian space station Mir plummet to Earth later this month, a little piece of Utah comes down as well. Plant-growing equipment from Utah State University

Most of the 15-year-old space station should burn up in the atmosphere, though up to 27 tons of fragments could splash into the South Pacific.

As one space odyssey draws to a close, another begins this fall for USU. The university's Space Dynamics Laboratory will continue its relationship with Russia's space program as Russia will transport a small USU greenhouse unit to the International Space Station.

Gail Bingham, a USU micrometeorologist, left for Russia's Star City cosmonaut training center on Friday with a prototype greenhouse to train cosmonauts on the unit's operation. A final version of the space greenhouse will launch in September or October.

The unit was dubbed LADA, for the maker of cheap Russian cars. LADA will be installed aboard the Russian section of the space station. USU will foot the $150,000 price tag for the program while the Russian space agency provides a way to get the greenhouse into space.

In comparison, NASA will pay millions to contract out development of a greenhouse for the U.S. section of the ISS. Bingham said his team refers to the competing project as Lexus, named after the upscale American car.

USU crop physiologist Bruce Bugbee, who is working with Bingham, said the program will help determine which crops are best suited to grow in space. Microgravity and limited resources are among the problems for raising plants away from Earth.

"We need unique varieties of plants in space," he said.

Cosmonauts living on the ISS will be awfully hungry if they rely on the foot-and-a-half-foot-tall metal greenhouse for all their food needs. Bugbee said the apparatus is geared to data collection, though some crops will be eventually available for snacking.

Bingham said with space at a premium on the station, a six-inch-wide Casio laptop computer will collect data on the developing crops. Electronic equipment will also precisely disperse six liters of water -- enough to grow an entire space crop.

The rectangular metal device, which includes two fluorescent bulbs, can produce a crop of four dwarf tomato plants or about 20 lettuce plants. The Russians have not yet announced what crops they want on the space station.

The front door, made from a 15 percent transparent one-way mirror, offers the only view of the plants. Full mirrors on the other three walls work to make the most of the available light. Russian solar panels will provide the 120 watts of power needed to run the greenhouse.

Among Mir's final experiments, USU equipment helped grow leafy vegetables, including rapini, mizuna, Chinese cabbage and red giant mustard.

Bingham has a video of Mir crew members becoming the first humans to eat vegetables grown in space. While recently playing the video in his office, Bingham could not help but smile watching the cosmonauts tasting the fruits of his labor.

One cosmonaut's face almost filled the screen as he quietly nibbled on a rapini leaf for about a minute. A voice off-camera finally prodded him to speak.

"Fresh greens are fresh greens," the Mir resident said through a translator.

After more thinking and more tasting, the Russians went on to describe the crop as delicious, unexpected and a pleasant change in their normal space diet.

"We didn't write the script," Bingham said. "We just told them to take pictures when they ate it.

"Bingham said the experiment also has a psychological benefit, keeping the cosmonauts involved in tending to a living plant.

Bingham first approached NASA in 1985, but the space agency was not interested in his space plant venture. In the early 1990s, he turned to America's former space rivals. The Russians helped put the USU experiments on Mir.

Bugbee said early USU experiments involved growing the first wheat in space. Bugbee has received NASA funding for some of his plant work, including the wheat, though nothing directly for his assistance with the USU-Russia experiments.

As part of the deal, Russians pick the plants to grow. This time around, it could be lettuce or spinach, Bugbee said.

"It would be nice to learn earlier what they are going to take," he said.

One early challenge for space crops was controlling water. On earth, gravity pulls water down through the soil and in turn pulls oxygen through the soil.

Bugbee said this can be seen when picking a water-soaked sponge off the table and holding it vertically. Gravity forces some of the water to drip out of the sponge.

With no gravity in space, the water in a sponge stays put. Likewise, water in space would simply ball up in regular soil, he said.

To avoid this problem, USU has used a material called Arcillite, which is sand-sized chips of baked clay. As long as the tiny chips are close enough together, the water creeps evenly through the material thanks to capillary action.

Bugbee said the team is working on other types of "soil" to determine which would provide the right mix of air and water.

Ethylene posed another problem in space crops. Fruits and vegetables produce the gas, which in large quantities can be harmful to plants. Ethylene production increases after a fruit or vegetable is picked, Bugbee said.

Winds on the ground generally blow the gas away from crops. In a closed-environment with no wind, like the space station, the gas lingers. The space plants produce the gas and the imported fruits and vegetables add more Ethylene to the air.

Instead of trying to clean the station's air better, USU decided to genetically breed plants that could grow in areas with high ethylene levels.

Bingham said the sometimes-troubled Mir space station was a point of great pride for the Russian space program. Russia must now share the space spotlight with other nations on ISS.

"We got a lot of good equipment up there," he said of Mir. "We're sorry to see it disappear."