On Earth, plants are able to adapt to extreme environments, and space experiments have shown that plants are able to grow and reproduce in microgravity, too, as the first plant materials were launched into space in 1960. Since then, a number of experiments have been successfully performed in outer space.
SpaceX, Elon Musk’s spacecraft manufacturing company, has reportedly teamed up with a Colorado research lab to send hemp, a variety of marijuana, and coffee plants to the International Space Station in March to test what happens to the plants in a zero-gravity environment, reported Vice.com.
Front Range Biosciences, an agricultural biotech company that breeds genetically consistent hemp and coffee varieties, partnered with the University of Colorado and a tech startup called Space Cells for the project.
The SpaceX CRS-20 cargo flight, set for March 2020, will deliver over 480 plant cell cultures to the space station.
There they will be contained in a special incubator with a regulated temperature for around 30 days, as astronauts and a crew on the ground will monitor what happens to them. A month later, the cells will be transported back to Earth, with Front Range Biosciences examining the samples to see how microgravity and space radiation exposure may have altered the plants’ genes.
Dr. Jonathan Vaught, Co-Founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences, said:
“This is one of the first times anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on hemp and coffee cell cultures.”
Vaught lauded the chance to further explore the science behind the theory that plants in space experience mutations, saying:
“This is an opportunity to see whether those mutations hold up once brought back to Earth and if there are new commercial applications.”
A statement from Reggie Gaudino, VP of research and development at Front Range, said:
“We are excited to learn more about both hemp and coffee gene expression in microgravity and how that will inform our breeding programs.”
Louis Stodieck, director of BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, added:
“In the future, we plan for the crew to harvest and preserve the plants at different points in their grow-cycle, so we can analyse which metabolic pathways are turned on and turned off. This is a fascinating area of study that has considerable potential.”
While the project aims to eventually produce interstellar pot or coffee, the company believes the results could be used successfully here on Earth to design resilient crops that can survive in climate change stricken areas.
Last year, Front Range partnered with Frinj Coffee to produce coffee plants that can grow in Southern California – a challenging task outside of equatorial countries like Colombia.
Hemp is useful for food, textiles and sucking up heavy metals in the ground. It also contains high amounts of CBD, a cannabis-derived molecule that seems to have numerous medicinal properties. Hemp is a versatile plant that could have many applications in space.
On Earth, plants are known to adapt to extreme environments, and space experiments begun in 1960 have demonstrated that plants are able to grow and reproduce in microgravity.
Since then, a number of experiments have been successfully performed in a spacecraft, expanding scientific knowledge about the long term effects of the space environment on plant growth.
Hopefully, on this occasion, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk won’t get into trouble with NASA, as was the case last year.
In 2018 Musk came under fire from the NASA Administrator after he was seen smoking marijuana during a podcast. The show is filmed in California, where marijuana is legal.
During a meeting at NASA’s headquarters in Washington, DC, Jim Bridenstein said:
“I will tell you that was not helpful, and that did not inspire confidence.”
Bridenstein said he had spoken with the Tesla founder several times as the space agency continues probes into workplace culture at SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies that have multimillion-dollar contracts with the space agency to fly its astronauts.
“…He is as committed to safety as anybody, and he understands that that was not appropriate behaviour, and you won’t be seeing that again,’ said Bridenstein.