Unburdened by the constraints of gravity, red and green peppers jut out at 45-degree angles inside the Artificial Plant Habitat (APH), a sort of space terrarium not much larger than a microwave. Four chili pepper plants stand effortlessly upright, despite the dozens of glossy fruits weighing them down. These plants have lived their entire lives in space; their leaves have never been chewed on by insects or rustled by a summer breeze, their stems are unfamiliar with bending toward the sun’s arc across the sky. Scissors glint under the tank’s white and blue lights as astronaut Mark Vandahei and his team snip the stems of those that are ready for harvest. The peppers whirl around their heads until the astronauts catch them and tape them against a board to photograph.
Back on Earth, the Plant Habitat-04 team of engineers and plant scientists are observing and conferring with the astronauts. Of the 26 peppers in this batch, only the 14 finest will stay on the International Space Station for consumption. The rest will be wrapped in foil, sealed in a Ziploc bag, then frozen at a brisk –80 degrees, until they can come roaring back to Earth in the next cargo capsule to be studied later. Now, after a 138-day growth cycle, the astronauts remove the plants from the module and trash them. Project Plant Habitat-04 is complete. It is taco night on the ISS.
“The advanced plant habitat is the most complex plant growth system on orbit today,” says Lashelle Spencer, a plant scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Its more than 180 sensors control and monitor temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide. The astronauts can adjust the color and intensity of the light, and how much moisture the plants’ roots are getting. It waters itself.
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