March 10, 2017
The first school experiment to test if plant cuttings build roots in zero gravity has been sent to the International Space Station (ISS). The trial, designed by Maria Koch, Raphael Schilling and David Geray – three students from an agricultural high school in Ravensburg, Germany – left Kennedy Space Center in Florida on board the SpaceX rocket on February 19, 2017 at 9.39 am local time. To date, experiments conducted in zero gravity have only concentrated on the growth behavior of seeds. If cuttings can be used to propagate plants in space, it would be a significant advance in efforts to supply food for long space missions, such as to Mars.
“We are just hugely excited that we have been able to get our experiment on the ISS” said Maria. “There hasn’t been any research on the effect of zero gravity on cuttings before. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
For their experiment, the student research team took 15mm cuttings of the plant, ficus pumila (climbing fig). This plant fulfills the tough space travel requirements: It is small enough to fit the limited space and resistant to the temperature differences of 4-28°C. Maria, Raphael and David carefully planted the cuttings into an agar-based growing medium in a high-tech experiment box, called the AFEx Habitat. Thirty-six hours before lift-off, the experiment was delivered to NASA’s operations team. After the experiment has been conducted in space, a control experiment will also be carried out on Earth under the influence of gravity.
BASF’s crop protection experts have supported the young scientists with research know-how, scientific consultancy, materials and equipment. To develop the experiment design, the students also completed an internship at the BASF Agricultural Center in Limburgerhof, Germany. As the cuttings will undergo extreme differences in temperature and humidity in space, they need to be protected against bacterial or fungal disease. In this area, BASF has provided the required products. BASF fungicides, Xemium® and Initium®, are helping to keep the cuttings healthy during the research on the ISS, and on the trip there and back.
“This is the most exciting field trial I have ever been involved in. Working in research has always been about exploring new ideas. But until now, our tests have never left Earth,” explained Dr. Sebastian Rohrer, Early Fungicide Biology at BASF’s Crop Protection division. “BASF’s approach to innovation is based on connecting with others. Working with the students has been a great example of this – young people like these will be the future of innovation in agriculture.”
Maria, Raphael and David, who are now studying agriculture, started the “V3PO Project” in 2015, in an after-school science club at the Edith-Stein School Ravensburg & Aulendorf. The trial will now stay in space for 30 days before returning to Earth for analysis of the results. It is the first school project from Germany to be accepted onto NASA’s education program. Raphael from the V3PO team commented: “Looking far into the future, when space farming is a reality, then maybe we’ll be the pioneers.”