An unexpected travelling companion

17 March 2011

Gardens are always a source of surprises. After three weeks of steady growth in space under the watchful eye of the ESA astronaut Paolo Nespoli, the baby space plants of the Greenhouse in Space project have found a new – and unexpected – travelling companion: fungus.

The International Space Station (ISS) ecosystem is a particularly delicate one. Whereas some fungus does not cause much harm to earthly plants or humans, the balance of the closed systems in the Station could be compromised.

It is known that spaceflight reduces the crew’s immune systems, their ability to fight off infections, and once safety experts had confirmed that a fungus was growing in the greenhouse, the unavoidable decision was made to carefully remove the greenhouse from the ISS, thus avoiding any probability of causing any harm to the astronauts.

Paolo with greenhouse at the Space Station
Paolo with greenhouse on Space Station

The Arabidopsis plants, already having proved themselves as a hardy growers in space, seemed to grow very well despite the uninvited hitch-hiker on board.

Paolo was the first one to remark that simple procedures on Earth are extremely complex and possibly dangerous in weightlessness. "Part of the experiment was indeed a success: we were able to grow the plants and observe them."

Watch here how Paolo disposed his greenhouse.

Even though some experiments can go wrong, Paolo said, "This is a lesson to be learned that we can leave to the future astronauts. I’m sure they will get even better at it."

From real Space Station to virtual Mars spacecraft

The Greenhouse in Space education project moves on and encourages participating students throughout Europe to continue their experiments and monitor their plants even more closely. Now it is time to compare their greenhouses with the martian ones, as the crew of Mars500 found four of these little greenhouses packed in their lander module with all other cargo.

Now they are carefully growing the same plants in their spacecraft-like modules and the results are coming in – have a look at the video below.

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Growing well at Mars500
After three weeks

The Greenhouse in Space education project started on 17 February and is being carried out by more than 800 school children throughout Europe. The first online lesson is now posted on ESA educational web pages, where the results of all the participants can be checked and compared.

The Project's group on Facebook has discussions and photos. Teachers can follow the lesson online and should send their class results to the HSF education team at the end of the project.

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