Now that the plant’s been around for a few weeks, it’s easy to forget how remarkable it is that it can survive in its current environment.
We’ve harvested the full-grown basil leaves twice, and the plant has responded by putting out new leaves. It’s behaving like an ordinary basil plant. But it’s not planted in soil, or anywhere with access to sunlight. It’s able to live and grow in a bucket full of clay balls, suspended inside a cabinet.
You can see the plant’s enclosed position in the picture below. The light it relies on is shining down through a hole cut in the shelf above it.
You might notice that the light reflecting off the leaves looks blue. In fact, the light at the top gives off a combination of red and blue light, both of which are important for plant development and growth. This artificial light means that our basil has been able to survive and grow for weeks without sunlight.
The bucket in the middle holds the plant itself, seated in clay balls, as you can see in the first picture. The bucket at the bottom catches the water that drains through the clay balls, so it can be cycled back up to water the plant again.
It’s a bizarre situation for any plant to live in. But our basil has been able to survive, to grow, to develop new leaves. We’ve been replacing the water every few days, refreshing the nutrients and removing unhealthy leaves, but for the most part our AstroPlant has been doing fine with little intervention.
It seems incredible that a plant can flourish under artificial light rather than sunlight, but we’ve got the evidence right here in our lab. Now that we’ve seen it for ourselves, it’s much easier to understand how astronauts have managed to grow plants in enclosed units on the International Space Station, despite the conditions being so different from Earth’s.
Our AstroPlant’s had limited contact over the last week. We’ve paid it a couple of visits to make sure it has fresh water and remove a few shrunken leaves, but for the most part it’s been quietly thriving in its strange, isolated, artificial environment: something living and natural in unnatural surroundings.
On space stations, astronauts can take pleasure in looking after plants, and the plants can offer nutrition and oxygen in return. In the hostile environment of space, living things can take care of each other, which is why the AstroPlant project is so valuable. If we can learn more about how to grow plants in space, it could be a huge help to people on space missions.
For more about growing plants in space, return to our AstroPlant page.