For the first time in history, natural, unmodified Earth soil and engineered biochar soil will be among the supplies to be sent to International Space Station (ISS) Mission on September 29.
Growing plants has been a regular feature in Space. However, the plants are grown in various media that are not soil: from hydroponic systems to clay-based formula.
But things are about to change on September 29. Real natural Earth dirt will be sent to the ISS for the first time to study how soil reacts without gravity.
Soil in Space
The soil sent to ISS includes three soil types: one sample would be from German soil biologist Matthias Rillig. An engineered soil containing biochar from the company bio365 is also one of the pieces. The third sample is from the ground Morgan Irons took from a Cornell University organic farm plot. The soil samples will be sent to a resupply mission for ISS, orbiting 254 miles above the Earth.
One-tenth of a pound of dirt will be packed in 36 self-contained plastic vials.
Researchers have previously used hydroponic planting systems, engineered growth media, and highly modified mineral soil to grow Space plants.
According to Irons, this experiment marks the first time that Earth soil is natural and unmodified, and engineered biochar have been brought to Space.
Johannes Lehman, a professor of soil science and lead researcher of the project, said sending the soil to Space is a historic moment as it is the first time that a soil system leaves the Earth.
Planting crops in Space
Planting crops are one of the earliest experiments in Space, all of which are designed to study how crops grow outside Earth.
Romaine lettuce, for example, was grown and eaten by Russian cosmonauts for several years.
In 2015, Expedition 44 crew members of NASA and JAXA ate the laboratory-grown red romaine lettuce they harvested from the International Space Station's plant growth system. NSA was developing food in the hopes of providing sustainable food supplements for astronauts in the future.
But in these experiments, the soil was not used to grow the plants. Instead, it used hydroponics and various artificial media due to control, restrictions on weight, and fast growth and harvesting. However, the natural earth soil is different: it contains fungi, bacteria, and a wealth of other microorganisms, and how it reacts to Space is still a mystery.
According to Irons, the study aims to "understand the impact of gravity on fungal and microbial systems in the context of soil aggregate stability."
No studies have been done on natural and biochar-containing soil in Space; thus, scientists do not know what happens to the soil without gravity or the role of gravity in soil biogeochemical processes. The researchers are also hopeful that studying soils in Space would provide more understanding of soil's properties that may help scientists and farmers here on Earth.
The shipment to the International Space Station will replenish food, equipment, and supply. The soil is expected to launch on September 29, 10:27 p.m. EDT from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Virginia.
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