Seeker Archives

Space Fungus! Mold Found On Space Station Plants

Four zinnia plants on the International Space Station are sickly or dead after mold was discovered in the Veggie experiment facility in late December, according to NASA.

Space Fungus! Mold Attacks Space Station Plants

Four zinnia plants on the International Space Station are sickly or dead after mold was discovered in the Veggie experiment facility late December, according to NASA. The problem was immediately traced back to excessive water in the experiment, which was addressed. There are still three healthy plants that appear unaffected by the issue.

ISS commander and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly reported the mold to Mission Control Dec. 22 just as Veggie project manager Trent Smith was trying to manage the water problem. In pictures, Smith saw water on the plants a few days before. He told Discovery News he was trying to relay a command from NASA's station operations team to increase fan speed in Veggie, but the mold developed before the command could be put through.

PHOTOS: Gourmet Astronauts: Favorite Space Food

One solution was, on Christmas Eve, to designate Kelly "commander" of Veggie. Kelly now has more autonomy to make changes to Veggie's conditions if he feels the plants need it.

Kelly is in the middle of a one-year mission on the station and was there when the first crops from Veggie, romaine lettuce, were harvested in August. "There's nobody better positioned than Scott," Smith told Discovery News, saying this decision should cut down on future time delays.

Besides turning up the fan, sanitizing the experiment and wiping the excess water out of Veggie, Kelly bagged the moldy samples and put them in a freezer on station. They will be returned to Earth on the SpaceX 8 Dragon spacecraft later this year, when NASA will perform analysis to see what kind of mold it was. Any plants that die before SpaceX 8 departs will also be returned on that flight.

VIDEO: Can We Grow Plants on Mars?

Each "pillow" of soil in Veggie was initially planted with two seeds, with the healthier of each pair culled early in their lifespans. A second plant -- which Smith dubbed the "stealth plant" -- sprang a little late in Pillow A (see caption in picture above), and investigators decided to leave it. Zinnias are expected to live about 60 days, but can last as long as 80, he added.

The problem was discovered about halfway through the plants' lifespan. One plant in Pillow A died, while the "stealth plant" in that pillow survived and is growing well. The plants in Pillow B and D also died quickly, and the plant in Pillow E appears deathly ill as of Jan. 4, which was Day 49 of their cycle. The zinnias in Pillows C and F, however, still appear healthy. Smith said ground investigators continue to monitor the situation through photos and talking with Kelly.

Smith added that learning is part of the goal with Veggie. "It's part of this grand experiment to find out what the plants are telling us, what can we learn from them, what can we change operationally, and what can we tell the crew to look out for when they start gardening on their own." The aim is to have crews managing their own crops for future long-term space expeditions, such as to Mars.

PHOTOS: How a NASA Astronaut is Paving the Way to Mars

Veggie, more officially called Veg-01, has been running since March 2014. The facility has seen two lettuce crops harvested. The first set of lettuce was sent back to Earth to make sure it was safe to eat. Astronauts ate the second crop of lettuce after treating them with a sanitizing agent, just as a precaution.

The zinnias are not meant to be eaten, but are good precursor plants for dwarf tomatoes, which will be grown during Veg-05 in 2018. Before then, the crews will grow romaine lettuce and tokyo bekana (Chinese cabbage). The crews will also experiment with using lighting to adjust mineral and vitamin content in the cabbage.

“Our plants aren’t looking too good,” NASA astronaut Scott Kelly tweeted along with this picture in late December.

Scott Kelly is a NASA astronaut working for a year in space on the International Space Station. Does he have the stuff of "The Martian,"

the highly anticipated Matt Damon movie to be released on Oct. 2

, chronicling the life of a stranded astronaut on the surface of Mars? While Kelly certainly isn't on his own in space, much of the work he is doing would be useful for a trip to Mars. Here are some of the things the astronaut is working on that Mark Watney (Damon's character in "The Martian") would appreciate.

MORE: NASA's Ultimate Space Twin Experiment

The sun goes through an 11-year cycle of activity, and we are just past the peak of one of those cycles. The solar peak is a time when the sun unleashes more flares and coronal mass ejections (charged particles). When these particles hit the Earth's magnetic field, they can produce spectacular auroras.

But they also can give astronauts a higher dose of radiation.

The space station monitors radiation levels for astronauts close to Earth; in fact, one of the reasons Kelly was selected for this mission was he did not exceed the lifetime radiation levels allowed for astronauts. Radiation is expected to jump for those travelling outside of Earth's magnetic influence. Mars doesn't have much magnetic field to speak of, and the Curiosity mission is monitoring radiation levels on the surface to get more information for future human missions.

MORE: Killer Radiation: How to Protect Martian Astronauts

Working in space is a harsh business. You're busy all the time, you're stuck in a small environment with several people, and your family and friends are far away. NASA keeps close tabs on its astronauts' psychological health through measures such as doctor calls with astronauts, and

having the astronauts keep journals

during their missions. This will especially be important for Mars, as astronauts will need to be even more self-sufficient due to the time delay in communications between planets. NASA has

an ongoing comm delays study

for astronauts doing simple tasks; these tasks and their effects on astronauts will be studied as the station work continues.

MORE: Space Radiation May Harm Astronauts' Brains

Microgravity is hard on your body. NASA has its astronauts exercise for a couple of hours a day, which seems to help counteract bone loss for missions of six months. But what about a year, or longer? That's part of what Kelly's mission is supposed to answer. Bones aren't the only things to worry about, either. Muscles shrink, eye pressure increases, your sense of balance changes. Even your immune system may be affected, something that

NASA is also looking at

in detail. So while we think of astronauts as boldly doing spacewalks and experiments on station, understand that they are also part of the experiment. Their very health is being watched for the benefit of future space missions.

MORE: Space Missions Turn Astronauts' Hearts Spherical

While Watney develops a certain affection for potatoes, Kelly recently posted a picture of himself looking pretty pleased next to a floating pile of fruit. It turns out that little comforts do go a long way for astronaut morale, and any nutritionist would tell you that a varied diet of healthy foods is good for you -- not just the freeze-dried stuff the Apollo astronauts survived on during their missions. NASA has an experiment in place to see how well

astronauts are meeting nutritional requirements for their work on station

, and also for their long-term health.

MORE: Real NASA Space Tech in 'The Martian'

Astronauts are very tied to shipments from Earth right now in terms of eating ... but that is changing in a small way.

Thanks to an experiment called Veggie

, astronauts got to taste some food grown aboard the space station this summer. Lettuce, of course, does not an entire meal make. But as the movie Contact (1997) reminds us, it's through "small moves" that we learn about science. The hope is eventually this experiment will translate into a better way of harvesting crops beyond Earth. For Mars, we're even wondering how viable the soil could be to support plants.

MORE: 'Smart' LED Farming Could Make Space Veg Viable

"#ILookLikeAnEngineer on @space_station. Also a scientist, medical officer, farmer & at times a plumber," Kelly wrote with this image in August. What's more, he has to do all those things in a small space. Since every pound hoisted to space costs money, astronauts are accustomed to working in claustrophobic quarters. But NASA, concerned about its astronauts' efficiency and happiness, also has an

experiment that is supposed to look at how best to construct a living space for astronauts

. That way, the habitats designed for Mars will be suitable for long-term living.

MORE: Why 'Space Madness' Fears Haunted NASA's Past

During a recent Twitter chat, Kelly was asked if he wanted to go to Mars. He said yes, as long as he could return. Getting to Mars and back will take hundreds of days of transportation, let alone the time on the surface. The gravity on Mars is less than 40% what we experience here on Earth. And unless spacecraft design changes substantially, the astronauts will be in microgravity on the way there and back. NASA has an experiment to see

how well (or badly) astronauts work on the surface shortly after landing

, an experiment that Kelly is participating in. This will be important not only for returning to Earth, but seeing how well a crew can get adapted to Mars after being in microgravity for the transit.

MORE: 3D-Printed Bubble House Made for Mars