Irish crop experiment docks on International Space Station

24 Sep 2014

Professor Gary Stutte (left) with Adam Shinners, LIT post-graduate student, with the experiment payload that docked on the International Space Station yesterday

A potential breakthrough for successfully growing crops in extreme conditions on earth may be on the cards after an experiment by Limerick Institute of Technology researchers docked with the International Space Station yesterday.

The Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) project, which was chosen along with eight other global winners from global research competition Space Florida/NanoRacks ISS Research Competition to be flown to the ISS, will explore over the next 28 days how the clover-like payload reacts in space and whether or not it can be used as a natural fertilizer for crops there.

The SpaceX-CRS 4/Dragon berthed on the ISS at approximately 9:45a.m. EST (13:45 GMT) yesterday (Tuesday) and the experiment is due to be removed from cold-stow and paced in its ISS rack over the next 24 hours.

If proven in space, the application may also be replicated on earth, potentially leading to a major breakthrough for sustainable farming of crops in harsh environments, including in existing barren lands in the developing world and reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers on earth.

Additionally, the research, which is exploring how the critical process by which naturally occurring bacteria fertilize plants may be improved, could lead to crops such as peas, radishes and lettuces, being grown in space.  This could assist dietary requirements for astronauts in long-duration missions, delivering a more balanced menu than the current freeze-dried foods option.

To boldly go …

This is the first time an Irish institution has been a leader and principal investigator in an experiment to the International Space Station.  The LIT research is led by Professor Gary Stutte, who for the past three years has been on secondment as a Marie Curie Research Fellow to the Controlled Environment Laboratory for Life Science (CELLS) at the Institute.

However, it isn’t the first time that students from Limerick sent items into space. In July we reported how a science experiment designed by students from St Nessan’s Community College, Limerick, left the planet aboard a rocket headed for the International Space Station (ISS) to study the effects of microgravity on concrete.

A panel of independent and scientifically qualified judges based at Space Florida – the State’s spaceport authority and aerospace economic development organization – chose the LIT project among only a handful of other shortlisted universities such as Stanford and Florida IT. After a number of postponements, the mission, which is sponsored by sponsored by Space Florida and Nanoracks , finally got lift-off from the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida on Sunday at 1:52a.m. EDT (5:52a.m. GMT).

“We are very optimistic about this experiment as it will tell us much about the operating limits of the biological process, which could lead to extremely valuable applications both in space and back here on earth,” said Professor Stutte.

“This is new frontier research at its best as it is essentially trying to explore ways of assisting humankind.  We could be advancing the building of space farms of the future arising from this research,” Stutte explained.

There is already red lettuce up there growing and my thumb print is on that so this is looking at the value of a naturally occurring fertilizer for crops.  It may well also arrive at some extremely positive findings with regard to advancing farming in extreme conditions on earth.”

After its 28 days on board the ISS, the payload will be returned to the capsule, which will un-berth and make its way back to earth, landing in the Pacific Ocean before being brought back to NASA and then returned to LIT for analysis.

The rocket took 36 hours to reach the ISS, which is located 216 miles above the earth, and was travelling at 42,000mph.  The ISS itself operates at speeds of approximately 17,225 MPH – faster than an AK47 bullet – and, including its large solar arrays, spans the area of a standard American football pitch and weighs 924,739lbs.

The mission happens in a busy week for space exploration with the Maven probe finally entering in orbit around Mars, completing a journey that lasted nearly a year and covered 442 million miles. 

The success follows the historic achievement by LIT in 2011 when one of its post-graduates, Gerard Newsham, had his research programme carried on board the last ever NASA space shuttle mission.

“Being the first Irish institution to be the lead investigator in an experiment to the ISS is a huge honour for LIT and is a great accolade for the exciting work taking place on the Institute’s research programme in the Sciences,” LIT President Dr Maria Hinfelaar explained.

“Having our research fly to the ISS and being able to partner and mix with organisations in this area such as CSS-Dynamac, which was the collaborator on the project and provided significant support in the run-up to launch, NanoRacks, NASA, and Space Florida puts us in elite company.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years