Budding sky­ward

Sci­en­tists check­ing crop growth aboard Tian­gong II space lab

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By YU FEI

In the science fic­tion movie The Mar­tian, the as­tro­naut stranded on the Red Planet lives for more than 500 days on pota­toes he has grown while await­ing res­cue.

The sce­nario in the film may be­come re­al­ity some­day, but right now am­bi­tions are pitched a lit­tle lower. Af­ter all, hu­mans have yet to set foot on Mars and so far, astro­nauts have only tasted ex­trater­res­trial food in the form of let­tuce grown on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

An ex­per­i­ment is now un­der­way to grow rice and thale cress aboard Tian­gong II, China’s lat­est space lab, which was launched in Septem­ber.

Sci­en­tists hope the plants will go through their whole cy­cle, from seed to seed, and are ea­ger to dis­cover whether plants in space— where there is no dis­tinc­tion be­tween up and down, day and night, or sea­sons — still blos­som ac­cord­ing to an Earth-based cy­cle and yield the same seeds.

“We want to study the growth rhythm and the flow­er­ing of plants in con­di­tions of mi­cro­grav­ity,” said Zheng Huiqiong, chief sci­en­tist in charge of plant re­search on Tian­gong II and a re­searcher at the In­sti­tute of Plant Phys­i­ol­ogy and Ecol­ogy of the Shang­hai In­sti­tutes for Bi­o­log­i­cal Sci­ences.

“So far, the plants on Tian­gong II have been grow­ing well. Some thale cress is bloom­ing and the rice is about 10 cen­time­ters tall,” Zheng said.

When the two astro­nauts who flew the Shen­zhou XI space­craft to the space lab on Oct 17 re­turned to Earth at the week­end, they brought back sam­ples of the cress, which are ex­pected to yield seeds in space, ac­cord­ing to Zheng.

The rice ex­per­i­ment will con­tinue on Tian­gong II for about six months. “This is China’s long­est plant-grow­ing ex­per­i­ment in space,” said Zhang Tao, a re­searcher with the Shang­hai In­sti­tute of Tech­ni­cal Physics, who is in charge of de­vel­op­ing the plant in­cu­ba­tor on Tian­gong II.

“Un­like sim­i­lar experiments on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, which are usu­ally con­ducted by astro­nauts or bi­ol­o­gists on board, we de­signed the in­cu­ba­tor so sci­en­tists on Earth can re­motely con­trol the light­ing, tem­per­a­ture, hu­mid­ity and vol­ume of the nu­tri­ent so­lu­tion dur­ing the ex­per­i­ment,” he added.

Crop cul­ti­va­tion will be a key task if bases are to be es­tab­lished on the Moon or on Mars, but so far, there is no suc­cess­ful ex­am­ple of plants be­ing grown in the type of to­tally en­closed en­vi­ron­ment that would be re­quired on other plan­ets.

JIN LI­WANG / XIN­HUA

A sam­ple of the thale cress that re­turned to Earth along with the astro­nauts in the Shen­zhou XI reen­try cap­sule.

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