Alas, our basil has met an unfortunate fate. Circumstances prevented anyone from getting into the lab to check on it for a few days, and, when we finally got back to it, we found the system had been down and the plant hadn’t survived the interruption.
We talked last week about how extraordinary it is that an AstroPlant can survive in its strange conditions, without soil or rain or natural light, and this incident helps to demonstrate how crucial systems like this are for growing plants in space. With the AstroPlant system running, the plant survived happily for almost a month. Without it, a healthy plant withered in a matter of days.
Does the failure of the equipment mean that the experiment itself has failed? Not really. The goal of an experiment is to see what happens and gather information. We’d have liked our basil to last longer, but its end has things to teach the AstroPlant project, just as its life did.
Any technological equipment carries a risk of unforeseen interruptions or failure. Through testing the equipment and examining its failures, though, it’s possible to learn what went wrong and refine the technology, either reducing the risk of failure or introducing ways to compensate for it. For example, a drone might have a backup motor that will kick in if one of its motors fails.
In the case of the AstroPlant project, these experiments are being carried out in a safe environment: on Earth, as opposed to in space. Our equipment interruption hasn’t caused any serious trouble; nobody’s going to starve because we don’t have any basil. Projects like this are important because they can demonstrate how things can go wrong in advance, meaning that potential problems can be fixed or compensated for before similar systems are tested in space, where equipment failure might have more consequences.
We’ve installed a new basil plant in the system, so we can continue gathering data for the project. We’ll keep an eye on it and let you know how it goes. If it behaves very like its predecessor, the updates might be less detailed or less frequent, but we’ll report here straight away if it turns blue or starts talking.
For more about growing plants in space, return to our AstroPlant page.