Lego Outreach

Hey First Lego League Teams!
My name is Nicole Beisel, and I am one of the doctoral students here at the University of Florida Space Plants Lab (Read more about the research led by Dr. Robert Ferl and Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul in the UF Space Plants lab by exploring the tabs above or by clicking here: Space Plants!) We are so excited that you are interested in studying plants in space as well! Please feel free to post any questions you and your teammates have regarding growing plants in space here for us to answer. We are super excited to help you out with your awesome projects!


26 thoughts on “Lego Outreach

    • Thank you for all the research you are doing! This is Jadon with the Fort White Galactic Titans. Our project is actually about trash. One solution is using some organic waste as fertilizer for plants in space. Have you done any experiments on this?

  1. Dear Nicole —

    Our team is da Catbots. Thank you for your welcoming and positive video, and for answering our team’s questions!

    We learned that cloning is useful for making plants in space, but it would not produce fruit. To solve this, we have created a Plant Donut. Its purpose is to pollinate plants in space so that people on long trips (like 5 years) can have fruit. Plant Donut is an enclosed donut shape with fans to blow the pollen around.

    1. Is pollinating plants in space an actual problem?
    2. Will the plant donut actually work?
    3. How strong should the wind be to blow pollen off the plants? And would it wreck the plants?
    4. Will the plants survive with the wind blowing just one way, or should we switch directions?
    5. Will dirt stay down in space and with the wind?
    6. Would strawberries grow in space?
    7. We learned that bees have trouble flying in space and their eggs don’t hatch. Can you have bees in space pollinate?
    8. Could monkeys and bats survive in space? (We learned they also pollinate on Earth.)
    9. Is there a similar solution to the Plant Donut already?

    Thank you very much for your help!
    – Alia, Charlie, Colin, Kira, Rishabh, Rose, Nora
    da Catbots of Burlingame, CA

    • Dear Da Catbots,
      Thank you for asking such great questions! Here are some thoughts regarding what you have asked:
      1. Is pollinating plants in space an actual problem?
      a. Pollination is definitely a valid concern to be thinking about when growing plants in a spaceflight environment. So far, not much research has been done to specifically address this issue- way to go Da Catbots for coming up with this as a relevant topic to study!
      2. Will the plant donut actually work?
      a. While there is no way for me to know for sure whether the plant donut will work without some testing, the concept makes a lot of sense to me. It certainly seems like something that might work to help overcome the issue of pollinating plants in space. I am not sure if this is your plan already, but I would highly recommend only turning the plant donut on when it is time for pollination however. Most likely, exposure to constant wind in the plant donut would negatively impact the growth of the plant. Plants can certainly withstand wind for a short period of time (which we see all around us on windy days), but too much wind for long periods of time can damage the plants. This is especially true when plants are young and most vulnerable to harsh environmental conditions.
      3. How strong should the wind be to blow pollen off the plants? And would it wreck the plants?
      a. I am not sure exactly how strong the wind should be to knock the pollen off the plants. However, as long as you wait long enough for the plant to fully develop it’s pollen before turning on the wind in the plant donut, I am quite confident that you would only need a relatively low wind speed. When plants have produced pollen ready to be released, it is extremely easy to knock the pollen off of the plants. Imagine how much wind you would need to blow dust off of a surface – this is pretty similar to how much force it takes to blow pollen off a plant.
      4. Will the plants survive with the wind blowing just one way, or should we switch directions?
      a. This is an excellent question! It will certainly help the plants to vary the wind direction. Also, in relation to your earlier question, I would advise only leaving the wind on when the plants are ready and old enough for pollination. When they are young and still developing, wind will be very stressful to them. With that being said, if you switch the direction of the wind when the wind is on you will be able to counteract some of the damage done by the wind. You can imagine that if you turn wind on in one direction at first, the plant might start to bend towards that direction. Too much bending in one direction is bad for the plant. However, if you switch the wind direction you can imagine that the switch will help “un-bend” the plant. This will certainly help manage the damage done to the plants by the wind.
      5. Will dirt stay down in space and with the wind?
      a. Unfortunately, yes the dirt will have issues staying down with the wind. However, there are many potential solutions to this!
      i. You can use a barrier of some kind to physically force your soil to stay in the pot. Scientists do this sometimes by placing a mesh screen (exactly like what you see on a screen porch door) over the top of the soil, with a hole in the center to allow the plant to grow through. This will help keep the soil down.
      ii. Also though, you don’t have to use soil at all! So far, all plants successfully grown in spaceflight have been grown without soil believe it or not! Soil is used here on Earth as a way to get nutrients to plants. However, scientists have come up with many other ways of getting plants the nutrients they need. This is very helpful because soil is extremely heavy, and heavy things cost the most to bring to space with us. So, instead of bringing soil to space scientists have found alternatives. Most plants that have been grown in space so far have been grown using some version of a system called “aeroponics”. This essentially just means that instead of soil, a light watery mist(jam packed with nutrients for the plant) is sprayed on the plants to deliver the nutrients they need to survive. I have attached a diagram of an aeroponics system below in case you are curious! In spaceflight, getting nutrients to the plants successfully is currently one of the biggest problems that scientists are still puzzled by and are still working towards solving everyday. Water behaves very differently in space, which makes providing nutrients to the plants very tricky.

      6. Would strawberries grow in space?
      a. I have no reason to believe they wouldn’t grow in space! So far, scientists have not tried to grow strawberries in space. However, all the plants that scientists have tried to grow in space were able to grow (For example: mustard plants, wheat plants, lettuce plants, and even flowers!). Some kind of plants grow a little better in space it seems, while others grow a little worse in space. So, strawberries may or may not grow differently in space than what we are used to seeing here on Earth but ultimately, I think they would grow.

      7. We learned that bees have trouble flying in space and their eggs don’t hatch. Are we right about this? Can you have bees in space pollinate?
      a. Yes, you are correct that bees have problems flying and reproducing in space. Due to this fact, it is unlikely that bees will be used to pollinate in space.

      8. Could monkeys and bats survive in space? (We learned they also pollinate on Earth.)
      a. Yes, I believe both monkeys and bats would be able to survive in space! In fact, before humans were ever sent to space, a chimpanzee (named Ham!) was sent first!! Read about Ham and his adventure here:
      b. I do not think anyone has yet sent a bat to space, but I see no reason they won’t survive. However, it is very likely that they may also have issues flying in space.

      Even though monkeys and bats may survive in space, I will point out that it is not likely that monkeys or bats will be used to pollinate in space. This is because it takes a lot of resources to take care of animals, and when we think about taking humans to space we need all of the resources we have to take care of the humans instead. Raising animals in space would require plenty of land, shelter, food, and water to be dedicated to taking care of the animals. In space, those resources are desperately needed by humans to survive. So, we likely won’t be able to use animals for many of things we are used to using them for here on Earth. It is very likely that the first humans who live in space long-term will be vegetarians because of this exact explanation as well.

      9. Is there a similar solution to the Plant Donut already?
      To my knowledge, there is not a similar solution to the Plant Donut already- so way to go Da Catbots for thinking it up all on your own!! Due to the issues I mentioned above with bringing animals to space, it is very likely that we will need to come up with a new strategy for pollination that uses either technology (for example, the plant donut!), or that uses human hands. Scientists are also capable of pollinating plants using their own hands, but this is time consuming and can sometimes be very difficult.

  2. What are the affects of micro gravity on plants? What are the affects of extreme G-forces (from take off) on maturing plants that are capable of producing fruits? How could one harvest root vegetables in space without dirt particles flying everywhere? Are there ways to efficiently harvest fruits/vegetables without the need of humans? Would a waste recycling system that uses bacteria to turn the waste into nitrogen to fertilize the plants?

    • Hi William, thank you for many interesting questions! My name is Brandon, and I’m a graduate student at the Space Plants Lab. I’ve broken up the questions and answered them all separately as best I can.

      1. What are the effects of microgravity on plants?

      While this is a very important question, its scope is so large that we don’t know the full answer yet! From work that has already been done, we can see that there are many changes in genes that are expressed in spaceflight. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of genes, think of it like this: if you need a tool to do a job, you would only want to carry that tool when that job needs to be done. You wouldn’t need to carry a shovel if you’re planning on going fishing! On this level of gene expression, plants respond to spaceflight with many of the same tools they use to deal with other stresses such as heat and salt, and there are even some responses that we normally see when plants fight off bacteria here on Earth. Plant roots usually grow in all sorts of tangles because they don’t have gravity to direct them downwards. However, under the proper lighting conditions, plants in spaceflight are able to grow their roots in a straight line away from the light and look much more like the roots of plants grown on Earth. There are also other labs, such as that of Dr. John Kiss, who focus on using centrifuges on orbit to simulate Earth gravity, and look at how the effects of spaceflight can be separated from the effects that are caused primarily by differences in gravity. These things show, we believe, both how amazing plants are and how plants’ ability to respond to their environment can be used to design special growing conditions for spaceflight!

      2. What are the effects of extreme G-forces on maturing plants capable of producing fruits?

      We are unsure of the answer, as a common way to study increased g-forces on plants is currently through the use of centrifuges. Larger plants could require a lot of work to create a large enough centrifuge that would also have to be properly balanced. Studying them in a rocket launch would be difficult, as these mature plants would be much heavier and take up more room than the smaller hardware that many labs ordinarily use. We found one interesting study by searching through the literature for effects of hypergravity on crop plant development. This group saw that when carrots were grown in a centrifuge their growth was actually improved by high g-forces when compared to normally-grown carrots! Some labs also use magnetic fields to simulate hypergravity, such as that of Dr. Francisco-Javier Medina. This type of approach might be better for studying such large plants and how they respond to higher g-forces.

      However, fruiting plants may not react in a similar manner to a root crop such as carrots. The method our lab uses is to send seeds into space and grow the plants in orbit. While this may be a problem for fruiting plants, which can take a long time to start producing fruit, this does keep the seeds safe from the high g-forces due to their dormant state. There has been some recent work in large collaborations between other labs, studying modified plums that produce fruit more quickly and more regularly than ordinary plants (more information on this can be found at: We also encourage you to reach out to Dr. Thomas Graham, as he could provide much more depth or direction on this plum research. The interesting part is that this research could possibly be applied to other plants, so that the plants could produce more fruit while taking up less room in space and using fewer resources.

      3. How could one harvest root vegetables in space without dirt particles flying everywhere?

      If soil was to be used to grow root vegetables, it may indeed be very difficult to prevent soil from quickly creating a large mess in space. As the answer to Da Catbots (also on this page if you would like to read it for more information) mentions, the growth of plants is often carried out using methods that are cleaner than soil, are reusable, and which are usually less heavy than soil to carry to the space station. In fact, we recently attended a talk given by Dr. Robert Morrow of the Sierra Nevada Corporation where the subject was growing potatoes successfully in an aeroponic (meaning that the roots are not fully covered by either soil or liquid) growth chamber designed for use in space. This also reduced the issue of messes for those scientists, as the plants were able to absorb much more of the nutrients and water that were given.

      4. Are there ways to efficiently harvest fruits/vegetables without the need of humans?

      As a matter of fact, some ways of doing this are already being developed! I am only passingly familiar with some methods of automated harvest, but this one that may be very interesting to you, as it seems to be able to work well without damaging plants. The video that I’ll link below shows a system developed by a company called Abundant Robotics that is able to view apples through a camera, identify them, and harvest them with a suction device. There are many other automated systems for harvest as well, such as ones that use mechanical grabbing arms instead, and we encourage you to look further. Maybe you can come up with your own ideas that are better suited to the special conditions in space!

      5. Would a waste recycling system that uses bacteria to turn the waste into nitrogen to fertilize the plants be possible?

      While this would be possible, this is not an area of our expertise. Using this type of system would introduce issues of how to handle waste, keep it contained, and deal with all the potentially harmful byproducts of the decomposition process (i.e. methane gas). We did find a news article which discusses the work of Dr. Christopher House’s lab in studying potential uses for bacterial recycling of waste in space, and they even captured the methane that was produced and used it to feed other bacteria! They may be able to provide more information on how this type of system might be expected to perform in actual spaceflight conditions.

      I hope we managed to help with your questions, and please let us know if anything is unclear and whether you have follow-up questions that we could answer!

  3. Which plants are the most efficient in space (balanced growing speed, balanced yield)? Which plants are most commonly used in food?

    • Hi Amogh,

      Rachel Tucker here, a fellow lab member in the UF Space Plants Lab. These are great questions; thank you for asking!

      Efficiency in space travel really comes down to the degree of benefit something offers relative to the amount of space it takes up on the space craft, sometimes called Volume Use Efficiency (VUE). That said, the most efficient plants are generally those that, as you mentioned, produce edible biomass quickly, require little space, and generate a high edible to inedible biomass ratio, often called harvest index. Various types of lettuce, potatoes, and bell peppers meet these criteria and are often studied.

      In some cases, a food crop may not meet these criteria, but they play a vital role in the human diet in space. Plums, for example, have been shown to reduce bone loss, a common problem amongst astronauts. To combat the low VUE of such crops, many studies have found ways to produce dwarfed, or smaller versions of the plants that improve their harvest index. Genetic modification, root restriction, and mechanical stimulation are all techniques that have been successful in reducing inedible biomass.

      Another procedure to improve efficiency of plant crops in space is leaching, or the soaking of plant material in water to release nutrients and molecules into a recyclable form. As Dr. Paul here in the lab has said, every molecule of carbon in the plant is important, and research done on the leaching of inedible biomass has shown to retrieve up to 95% of the nutrients in the plant tissue.

      Food processing is also a consideration when choosing crops for food production in space. Current crops being studied on the International Space Station (ISS) were chosen in part by the ability of astronauts to pick and eat them directly from the growth chamber.

      For more information about plums in space, visit Dr. Thomas Graham’s site:

      If you would like some more information about leaching, here is an article by Dr. Ray Wheeler:

      For more information about “pick and eat” crops currently aboard the ISS, contact Dr. Gioia Massa at

      Hopefully this answered your questions, Amogh. Thank you again for reaching out, and feel free to send some more questions our way!

  4. My name is Valeria, I am one of the researchers from the the Kipp 3D robotics team, the TigerBots. For our competition this year, we are researching problems with space travel. We chose to focus on plant growth in space. My team and I have read your article about molecular biology of plant development in space flight environment. Since you are an expert on gravitropism we wanted your input on our project. For our project we built a model to try to trick the plant into not growing toward gravity. We made a centrifuge by using a fan, cups, duct tape and put popcorn seeds in wet napkins in the cups. We turned on the fan that is stabilized with duct tape to spin so that we could see how the centrifugal force could affect the plant growth. The plant roots grew perpendicular from gravity which we believe shows that we can trick the plant into growing normal roots in microgravity. We can send you pictures and a video of our project if you need to see it to better understand it.

    I have some questions about plant development if you don’t mind me asking: do you believe that if we keep spinning until the plant roots are fully grown and then let the plants grow normally they will survive? Do you think that the plant can grow without auxin and/or cytokinin during space travel? Could our idea be used in space travel during long duration space flight?

    • Dear Valeria and the TigerBots,

      Wow! I think it is super impressive that you and your team were able to design a centrifuge and effectively “trick” the plant into ignoring gravity signals. Many scientists who research plants in space have had similar ideas. For this reason, several experiments have been done involving growing plants inside centrifuges both here on Earth and even on the International Space Station. Here are a few links describing studies that focus on growing plants in centrifuges as examples, though there are many more out there:
      This is a quick two-minute YouTube video explaining some of the research involving centrifuges currently going onboard the ISS.
      This is a super interesting short research article in which scientists observed that carrots actually germinated and grew faster when grown in a centrifuge compared to controls!
      This is another fascinating research study in which a common moss was also observed to grow better when grown in a centrifuge!

      Okay, now to move on to your specific questions:

      1. Do you believe that if we keep spinning until the plant roots are fully grown and then let the plants grow normally they will survive?

      While this sounds like a great idea at first, the problem is that plant roots are never really “fully grown”. Rather, most plants’ roots will continue to grow throughout their entire lifetime. So unfortunately, I believe that if you removed the plants from the spinning centrifuge, the roots would begin to grow in the direction of gravity once again.
      If you could design a centrifuge big enough, it might be possible to grow the plants in the centrifuge for their entire lifetime however. If the plants stayed spinning in the centrifuge for their whole life, it might be possible to trick them into growing normal roots in microgravity.

      Also, I want to point out here that is very possible to trick the plant into growing normal roots in microgravity using light (without a centrifuge). You are correct that plant roots like to grow in the direction of gravity, but they also like to grow away from light (This is called negative phototropism). So, if you provide the plant with a low level of light, you can create what’s called “directional lighting” to help the plant roots orient themselves in microgravity. If you provide the plant with high levels of light, the plant roots often lose the ability to orient themselves. Work done by the UF Space Plants Lab has studied this aspect of growing plants in space. If you are interested in learning more, reach back out to us and we can send you the related articles! Look at the diagram below to get a better understanding:
      Example: Gradient lighting & plant root growth in microgravity
      Image and video hosting by TinyPic

      2. Do you think that the plant can grow without auxin and/or cytokinin during space travel?

      Based on results from experiments here on Earth, I do not believe that plant’s can survive well without auxin or cytokinin. Both auxin and cytokinin are hormones that are extremely important during plant development. Auxin is required for root development while cytokinin is required for shoot (aka the leaves/stem/”green” part of the plant) development. These plant hormones both have additional intricate roles as well that help fine-tune many aspects of plant development. Overall due to the complex roles that auxin and cytokinin play during plant development, I do not think it is likely that plants could survive well without either of these major hormones in spaceflight or on Earth.

      3. Could our idea be used in space travel during long duration space flight?

      In order to answer this question in confidence, many experiments would need to be done here on Earth before we could think about whether it might work in long-duration spaceflight. However, the work your team has done so far is an excellent start! So far, you have demonstrated that plants can germinate and grow while spinning in your centrifuge. However, we don’t yet know if plants can grow for long periods of time in your centrifuge. What I imagine as being the biggest challenge when it comes to using centrifuges to grow plants in microgravity is the limited amount of space for plants to grow inside a centrifuge. Of course this issue can be overcome by designing larger and larger centrifuges, however physical space on any spacecraft is extremely limited. Due to this limitation, it will be difficult to design a centrifuge large enough to grow plants on long-duration missions, but small enough to fit in the spacecraft without taking up too much space.

      For this reason, and several others, many scientists in this field focus on methods of growing plants that take up the least amount of space while providing the most benefit. For a more detailed description of this concept, check out the response above from Rachel (a fellow lab member in the UF Space Plants Lab) to Amogh.

      I hope you and the TigerBots find these responses helpful! Please feel free to reach back out to us if you have more questions, or would like clarification on any of the responses above. We wish you the best of the luck with the rest of the competition!

      Nicole Beisel

  5. Are there limits as to what plants can grow in space?

    What specifics are needed to grow plants in space? For example, I read about “pillows” containing nutrients and was wondering if those were necessary.

    Could plants be grown the same in space as they are
    on Earth if gravity was simulated?

    • Hello Eliza, my name is Brandon, and I’m also a graduate student in the UF Space Plants lab. I’d encourage you to read, in addition to this response, some of the posts on our website’s page dedicated to answering questions from Lego League teams ( ). There will likely be additional information that we’ve posted in response to other teams that could help you with your project as well!
      1. Are there limits as to what plants can grow in space?
      Currently, the main limits on what plants can be grown well in space are the room available and the food that the plants produce. The plants that produce the highest volume of nutritious edible parts while taking up the least space are considered the best, because they are the most efficient. Plants that are “pick-and-eat,” such as salad crops, are currently the most popular for this reason, as well as for the fact that they don’t require any preparation or cooking. As Rachel (another of our members) also discusses on our forum, recently work has been done to even make plants that traditionally grow as trees better for space. A group of people worked together to engineer dwarf plums that can fruit much earlier than usual and don’t require seasonal changes to trigger fruit production. There is a paper available where Dr. Thomas Graham is the lead author (, which talks about these plums.
      2. What specifics are needed to grow plants in space? For example, I read about “pillows” containing nutrients and was wondering if those were necessary.

      There are not necessarily specific things that are required by plants only in space. A paper by Dr. Raymond Wheeler ( overviews some the spaceflight environments’ effects on plants ( For example, in the spaceflight environment the CO2 concentration is very high compared to what plants are used to, and this can have negative effects on their growth. Plants need the same things as on Earth, it’s mostly in the delivery of these things that we see differences. The “pillows” are used to contain a nutrient-enriched growth medium made from Arcillite (which is much like clay), and can hold water that is given through a tube on the outside of the pillow. This is important for spaceflight, as containment keeps dust and water from escaping into the space station and causing issues. The Veg-03 experiment deals with growing plants using these pillows on the space station, and Dr. Gioia Massa ( is one of the Principal Investigators of this project if you would like to know more specifically about the pillows or the Veggie platform the pillows are commonly used with.

      However, this type of solid growth medium is not required. Our lab, as well as others, use softer nutrient media that already contain water, but these are not suitable for long-term growth either due to the waste they can produce. Both hydro- (where the roots are in a liquid) and aeroponics (where roots are in the air) are being adapted as potential ways to deliver nutrients easily in space without creating waste products. I mentioned this in a response to another group as well, but our lab recently went to a talk given by Dr. Robert Morrow (Sierra Nevada Corporation), whose group was able to successfully grow potatoes in an aeroponic environment!

      3. Could plants be grown the same in space as they are on Earth if gravity was simulated?
      Plants can be grown more similarly to how they are grown on Earth when gravity is simulated, but they will still not grow the same. There are labs, such as that of Dr. John Kiss (, that use a
      centrifuge on orbit to simulate Earth gravity on the space station. In these studies, it has been seen that spaceflight does still affect plants when they are in simulated gravity. This then allows further study of the effects of spaceflight beyond microgravity, such as the impact of cosmic radiation or the lack of convection in microgravity. If it was desired to grow plants the same as they were grown on Earth, protecting plants in space from these other stress factors as well as simulating gravity would be needed.

  6. Hi there! My name is Brian, and I am part of my school Robotics team. We were wondering if our idea was valid and if you make some suggestions to our issue. Here are our Problem and solution: We want to be able to detect mold growth on the plants in the spaceship, so we decided to use some sort of humidity sensor, or some sort of air sampler to detect and alert the astronauts.

    • Hey Brian! My name is Julie and I am an undergraduate researcher here in the UF Space Plants Lab. You are absolutely right that humidity can be a problem when growing plants in space, especially considering that they are grown densely in an enclosed environment! Currently, plants in space are being grown in the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) and the Vegetable Production System (Veggie). The APH is equipped with sensors that detect temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide level, light intensity, and spectral quality. Veggie has the same sensors, but has still had issues with mold and high humidity in the system. In fact, some of the first flowers ever grown in space had mold growing on their leaves! In order to counteract the mold growth, astronauts used fan to increase air circulation, however they found that this also dried out the crop. There is still a lot of learning going on in regards to preventing mold and keeping plants contamination-free in space that scientists are trying to figure out! Adding an alert would be one step, but there are also other questions being asked, for instance, how can plants be sanitized to protect them from mold? How can humidity be controlled in a way that is both safe for plants and bad for fungi?

      Check out this article to read more on moldy flowers in space!
      Also if you’re interested, NASA also has a department dedicated to getting data and information from sensors installed on the spacecraft to the ground in almost real-time, so that they can record and detect any issues with technology or threats to safety. You can find more about this here:

      Good luck with your project, we look forward to hearing what you all come up with!

  7. Hi, my name is Ami, and I am part of the Wired Universe. Our topic is growing plants in space. We have found that growing plants in space has many problems such as watering plants. We have found articles about veggie and APH but they do not answer many of our questions. We were wondering if you could answer a few of our questions.

    Is APH better than Veggie with watering plants and any other aspect that the plants need to survive in space?

    What is the most effective way to water plants in space?

    How does APH water plants?

    What are the problems with APH in space?

    How do plants absorb water in space?


    • Hi Ami and Wired Universe team members! It sounds like you are on the right track with these questions! Watering plants in a controlled, high-production system is a huge challenge that engineers and scientists alike are tackling as we speak! While APH and Veggie are relatively new systems, the problem of how plants take up water most efficiently is not, and we don’t have a perfect answer yet. As you can imagine, water acts very differently in microgravity, but there are a couple different ways of watering plants in space that have been tried! In this link ( ) is an image of the Advanced Plant Habitat growing Arabidopsis thaliana, a small mustard that many scientists use to study, including us here at the UF Space Plants Lab. Plants are watered beneath the black surface using a rooting matrix with porous tubes that deliver water and nutrients using the natural forces of capillary action, which was designed nearly 30 years ago! You can observe this happening by placing a paper towel in small amount of dyed water and watching the water travel up the sheet and against gravity! The APH is also equipped with a sensor that detects when the plants need watered to keep them from being too wet or dry. Both APH and VEGGIE have been successful in growing plants in space, but they have a few differences, and it is hard to say which is better. APH provides a broader range and flexibility in the spectrum of light that can be given to the plants, whereas VEGGIE consists of red blue and green LEDs that are set throughout the entire growth cycle. Their main difference however, is their mechanism of watering. As mentioned above, APH uses a root matrix with porous tubes to distribute water and nutrients, but VEGGIE delivers them quite differently. In VEGGIE, plants are grown on ‘pillows’, which are filled with a clay like substance that is injected with water and nutrients. The issue that comes with this is that water that is not taken up can linger and create problems with mold and contamination. Outside of APH and VEGGIE, plants have also been watered with a nutrient mist, which works, but also can let water escape. While plants absorb water more or less the same in space as they do here on Earth, the challenges of keeping water where you want it when you want it, and minimizing waste are a massive obstacle.

      We’re all excited that you guys are thinking about this problem and look forward to answering any more questions and hearing what you all come up with!

      Best wishes,
      Julie Cromie

  8. Hi! We’re the Astrofarmers from North Carolina. First, we want to say how much we appreciate you taking the time to help us with our project for First Lego League! Our team is “designing” an aquaponics system that can be used as part of the space craft going to Mars (or other planet) and then be removed once on the planet to be used as a greenhouse. Our idea is to incorporate plants, animals (fish, shrimp, etc.), and helpful bacteria in which nutrients are circulated from the waste of aquatic animals to the plants with bacteria removing harmful ammonia. So here are our questions:
    1. In “farming” with only water in a microgravity environment, how were you able to keep from losing water?
    2. We saw that the UF/NASA experiment used arabidopsis plants, but would all plants, such as kale, act similarly?
    3. Could root-vegatables be grown in space without use of soil?
    4. How do you pollinate the plants without insects, and do you worry about pollen getting into and harming the mechanisms of the space craft?
    5. Without an atmosphere like on Earth to protect the plants from the sun’s radiation, how can you protect the plants?

    (Questions sent via coach’s email address.)

    • Hi Astrofarmers!

      I’m Rachel Tucker, an undergraduate researcher here in the UF Space Plants Lab. Your mobile greenhouse idea sounds great; recyclability and efficiency are always important considerations for space agriculture! Hopefully, the answers below will help out with the project.

      1. Water conservation is imperative for food production in space. The VEGGIE production system, a growth chamber that has been aboard the International Space Station since 2014, uses capillary action, or the attractive forces of water molecules, for water regulation. Water is stored in a reservoir, and through a wicking process, it moves to a second chamber in which crop roots are contained. Where will we get this initial source of water for the reservoir in the future? Researchers like Dan Barta at the Johnson Space Center in Texas have developed systems to recycle astronaut waste into water that is safe to replenish crops in space.

      2. Every species of plant is a little bit different, but we do expect to find a lot of similarities between Arabidopsis and food crops. We know a lot about the Arabidopsis genome, which makes it a useful tool for studying plant adaptation to the space environment. From the knowledge gained by studying these small plants, we can make better predictions about how food crops will react in space.

      3. Subterranean crops are able to grow in space, and in fact, potatoes were among the earliest studied food crops. Previous studies have used modified hydroponic systems with added material for structural support, such as clay and rockwool slabs. Results from an experiment conducted on the space shuttle Columbia (STS-73 mission) showed that potato tubers grown in space were comparable in size and shape to those grown on the ground.

      4. The majority of land plants on Earth do require a pollinator, and a substantial amount of research is still needed to efficiently pollinate plants in space. One of the biggest barriers to pollination in space has been humidity sensitivity. (Humidity sensitivity was discovered with Arabidopsis!) Though to date, some plants have successfully been pollinated in space by hand, and others that do not require a pollinator have produced seeds as well.

      5. The risk of radiation exposure is one of the most critical concerns for life in space. Current shielding technology is only somewhat effective, and plants that go beyond the protection of Earth’s magnetosphere will inevitably be exposed to higher doses of radiation than plants have ever been exposed to over the course of their evolutionary history. That said, the UF Space Plants Lab is using those handy-dandy Arabidopsis plants to study the effects of radiation on seeds. We have planted over 25,000 seeds, and we plant more everyday. We hope to have some results soon, so check back in!

      Great questions, Astrofarmers — you hit on some of the most pressing challenges in space farming! Please keep me posted on your greenhouse designs; I am excited to hear how it turns out!

      For more information about waste water recycling and Dan Barta’s research:

      For more information about the VEGGIE production system design:

  9. Hi, we are Diego and Luke from the RoboRaiders.
    We are doing our project on the plants’ growths in space. We would like your help for the following questions:
    What is the plant with the highest yield in space?
    What is the best way to optimize yield when growing plants in space?
    The RoboRaidrers.

    • Hi there, RoboRaiders!

      I’m Rachel Tucker here in the UF Space Plants Lab. Thank you for reaching out with some questions!

      Crop yield is a key factor when selecting candidate crops for space farming. In terms of harvest index, or the ratio of consumable to non-consumable plant material, plants that are almost entirely edible have the highest yields, such as lettuce and bok choy. However, in terms of caloric density, potatoes have a high crop yield, and certain types of sweet potatoes even have palatable leaves and stems that are safe for consumption. Other considerations that affect crop yield are time to harvest, overall plant volume, and tolerance to non ideal environmental conditions.

      Many techniques have been developed to optimize food production. LED lights are a good example. Research began in the early 1990s with scientists like Daniel Barta and Theodore Tibbitts at the University of Wisconsin, and more recently by scientists at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. LEDs are capable of emitting only certain types of visible light, and plants are most responsive to blues and reds. Moreover, LEDs reduce energy consumption when compared to their high-pressure sodium (HPS) and metal halide (MH) counterparts.

      Another method that Nicole has studied here in our lab and Dr. Ferl and Dr. Paul have tested inside greenhouses down in Antarctica is Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, or NDVI. NDVI is an imaging system that measures the light reflected from crops to evaluate plant health. With our imagers (we use GoPro cameras!), we are able to identify plant stress before it is visible to the naked eye.

      Hopefully this helps a bit with your project. Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

      For more information about LED research by Dr. Barta and Dr. Tibbitts:

      For more information about LED research at KSC:

      For more information about NDVI:

  10. Thank you for responding to our emails and your help with our project. Our team, the Space Squirtles, won the Champion’s award at regionals and now we are going to STATES! We have additional questions.

    1. In space how do you get rid of leaves or other items in space? Will the leaves fall off?
    2. What other substances could we use instead of dirt?

    We really appreciate your help!

    Thank you,
    Anders Erikson
    Space Squirtles
    Team #30784

    • Hi there, Space Squirtles! Rachel Tucker here, from the UF Space Plants Lab. Congratulations on making it to STATES! These are some great questions, so I’ll dive right in.

      So far, plants that have traveled to space have grown either in small, sealed petri dishes or in growth chambers of some sort. Following the desired growth period, the plants are removed from the petri dish or growth chamber for analysis. The petri dishes are typically thrown away. The growth chambers are cleaned to prevent residual debris from compromising the next experiment.

      However, as space travel begins to rely more heavily on an environment that recycles nutrients instead of obtaining them from Earth, often referred to as a closed system, the nutrients in the dead leaves will be needed to fertilize crops and/or help maintain a balanced ratio of gases within the environment.

      In regards to your question about dirt, you are wise to avoid soil. On average, one ton of soil contains more types of microorganisms than in all of the oceans combined! Such microbial diversity could wreak havoc in space. Luckily, most plants do not need soil to thrive, and can be grown hydroponically. Some subterranean crops have been grown with a mechanically supportive substrate, such as potatoes, radishes, beets, and carrots. Substrates are generally made up of rockwool, clay, or a regolith with known amounts and types of nutrients.

      Hopefully I’ve answered your questions. Good luck, Champion Space Squirtles! Let us know how things go at States!

  11. Thank you for opening up this discussion board.

    Our research question is:
    How can astronauts make foods grown in space safer for them to consume by reducing the amount of radiation in the nutrient solutions?

    Our Solution:
    Earth’s magnetic field forms a natural barrier from space radiation. The Force Field builds upon this idea by using small magnets to create a magnetic field inside the growing pillows astronauts currently use to growing plants in space.

    We read that a plant packet is used for growing the plants, do you know what’s in them?
    Have you done any research on how radiation effects plants in space?
    If so, have you done any work on how you might protect plants from radiation.
    What other contaminants can affect the quality of the plants?

    Thank you,
    Anastasia and Alex
    The Force
    Team # 1448

    • Hi Anastasia & Alex from The Force!

      Wow! Your research question and proposed solution are very interesting and relevant to what scientists in this field are currently working on. Thank you so much for sharing about your project with us!

      My name is Nicole Beisel, I am a graduate student here in the UF Space Plants Lab. I have put together some responses to your questions below that I hope you will find helpful.

      We read that a plant packet is used for growing the plants, do you know what’s in them?
      Yes, you are correct that “plant packets”, typically called plant pillows, are often utilized to grow plants in space. If you are interested in learning more about plant pillows, here are two very helpful links:
      1- This one has great simple animated gifs that showcase how plant pillows work to grow plants in space within one of NASA’s specialized plant growth chambers named VEGGIE.
      2- This one is a peer-reviewed scientific article about how to prepare plant pillows. This article contains very detailed information regarding what materials are inside plant pillows, several photographs of the pillows, and information on how to put them together.
      To summarize what you can read in the article, plant pillows largely contain a substance called arcillite inside them, in addition to plant fertilizer. Read more in the article, or google for pictures of arcillite, to learn more about this substance.

      Have you done any research on how radiation effects plants in space?
      Personally, I have not done any research on the effects of radiation. However! Several lab members of the UF Space Plants Lab focus on studying the effects of radiation on plant seeds! In fact, they have very recently published a peer-reviewed article about the effects of radiation on seeds, which I will link for you below:
      To summarize what you can read in their article, it was observed that when seeds are exposed to space radiation, a small percentage of the plants that grow from those seeds will have visible mutations. In other words, some of the plants that come from the seeds exposed to space look very funky compared to normal plants. You can find pictures of several of these funky plants in the link above. Additionally, exposing seeds to radiation in space results in genomic changes in a small percentage of the plants.
      Research is still being done, both by members of the UF Space Plants Lab and other great scientists around the world, to better understand the full effects of space radiation on plants.

      If so, have you done any work on how you might protect plants from radiation?
      To my knowledge, there has not yet been much research focused specifically on how to protect plants from radiation. So, way to go The Force for taking on a very relevant issue!
      With that being said however, I think the general assumption is that plants would likely be grown in the same areas where humans live in space. Therefore, any major protection built to prevent humans from high levels of radiation exposure would also likely protect plants. I know there are a large number of scientists around the world whose research focuses on protecting humans from space radiation. If you are interested in learning more about this work, I recommend starting with the following articles from NASA:
      This last link is an awesome textbook-style resource put together by NASA that focuses on radiation counter-measures. Again, this resource is completely focused on protecting humans from radiation rather than plants, but you can get an idea of the different types of protection used to shield from radiation.

      What other contaminants can affect the quality of the plants?
      The simple answer to this question is…everything! Plants, just like humans, will react slightly differently in response to almost any kind of “contaminant”. For example, plant quality will be affected by any kind of contamination in the air, water, soil/growth substrate, or nutrient solution. However, in relation to growing plants in space, in my personal opinion, microbes (bacteria, molds, fungi, etc) are the most worrisome contaminant. Scientists have already found that several different kinds of microbes live on the International Space Station. Therefore, it seems plausible that at some point microbial contamination could become an issue for plants growing in space.
      Here is a recent casual article that discusses bacteria found living on the International Space Station in case you would like to read more:

      I hope these responses will help as you prepare for your upcoming competition! Best of luck to you The Force! Please feel free to respond with more questions if you have them.


  12. hi,
    we are here from the Raiderbots,
    we previously wrote you and we wanted to get some input on our final design.
    we have made the kale kube,
    The kale kube is is a garden build for growing kale. It has a fan build in and it has a multi-colored grow light on top; in the designee, we have a pillow which has all of the nutrients that kale could need inside. the kale kube has rods on to of it so that they can be stacked.

    • Hi Raiderbots!

      Can you provide more detail on your design? We would be happy to provide some opinion on the design if so!

      From your description, it sounds like it contains the basic essentials of a plant growth chamber which is great! However, I am missing information on how your design is tailored for growing plants in space specifically.

      Feel free to respond with more detail, we look forward to hearing from you!

      Best of luck on the Kale Kube!

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