Little space courgette

Thu, Apr 12, 2012, 01:00

SMALL PRINT:HOW DO YOU grow your dinner in space? Astronaut Don Pettit has been tracking the fate of a courgette as it develops aboard the International Space Station, which orbits Earth.

Pettit relates the progress of the vegetable – which he describes using the US term “zucchini” – by writing a diary about it in the first person.

A major moment was the big sprouting on January 5th last.

“I sprouted, thrust into this world without anyone consulting me,” he writes. “I am not one of the beautiful; I am not one that by any other name instills flutters in the human heart.

I am the kind that makes little boys gag at the dinner table thus being sent to bed without their dessert.

I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions.

I am zucchini – and I am in space.”

With its roots contained in a ziplock bag which is rigged so that it can retain moisture but exchange gases with the cabin air, the courgette’s stem is protected by absorbent, spongy material called pigmat that is used for packing spacecraft supplies.

“Food” is in the form of a tea-like compost extract injected into the bag. “This is aeroponics, a rather new method for raising plants without soil and without large volumes of water,” writes Pettit.

The slightly quirky but informative blog entries are posted on the Nasa website and detail, again from the courgette’s perspective, strategies that can help it cope with un-Earth-like conditions on the ISS that could throw a plant off, such as the 16 short periods of day and night every 24 hours.