Reaching for the stars: how Utah scientists are contributing to space research --with an eye to colonization.

Author:Christensen, Lisa
 
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From its beginning, mankind has looked up to the stars and wondered what secrets the vast expanse held. Despite the best efforts of scientists through the ages and the advancing leaps and bounds of technology over the last several decades, space holds her cards close to her chest.

But a couple of projects and breakthroughs from Utah--a tiny speck on a little blue planet in a big, big universe--could help shed some light on some of those mysteries.

Green Thumbs in Space

For all the stories of brave space explorers, manned spaceflights are fraught with complication, from the effects of zero gravity on the body to the challenge of having and storing enough supplies to keep both spaceship and pilot on track. For long flights or colonization, producing food is a mandatory challenge to address. Over the last three decades, Dr. Bruce Bugbee, a professor of agriculture at Utah State University, has been trying to find a solution.

Bugbee has spearheaded multifaceted studies on growing plants in space, a project recently popularized by the news in August that astronauts had just had their first "space salad," and later in the year by Matt Damon's depiction of growing plants on Mars in The Martian. Helping plants survive and thrive in space comes with its own challenges, he says, but a lack or change in gravity is not one of them.

"The lack of gravity is not a critical issue for plant growth. It might be for people---all people have lost calcium from their bones; we're still working on what to do with people in microgravity, but the plants seem to do just fine," he says.

That immunity to gravitational challenges comes with a caveat: watering the plants. On Earth, when a plant is watered, the excess moisture drains out the bottom. Not so in space, where any extra water just sort of floats in the soil around the roots.

"We've killed a lot of plants in space by overwatering them," Bugbee says.

Because water won't even drain as far as from the top of the soil to the roots, a prescribed amount of water is delivered directly to the root area through a syringe. The plants' water needs are measured by moisture sensors in the soil.

Plant growth is controlled by the strength of the lights overhead and the length of time they shine on the plants. This, too, is more difficult in space--not because of any factors that make turning on a bulb more difficult, per se, but because when plants grow, they need carbon dioxide. In that respect, they also function as a sort...

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