Chinese astronauts successfully grew rice aboard the Tiangong space station
Chinese astronauts have successfully grown rice seedlings onboard the Tiangong space station.
Experts said on Monday that this experiment could provide important information about how astronauts can grow food to support extended space journeys, according to China Daily.
Even though prior rice experiments have been conducted in space, the one carried out aboard Tiangong is the first of its type to attempt to produce the entire life cycle of the plant, which starts with a seed and ends with a full plant generating new seeds.
On July 24, China launched the Wentian space laboratory into orbit to dock it with the Tianhe core module of the Chinese space station. The space lab is the nation's largest and heaviest spacecraft to date; it measures 17.9 meters (58 feet) in height and weighs 23 metric tons. Eight experimental payloads are on board, one of which is for the rice experiment.
Rice is fine for now
According to Zheng Huiqiong, a researcher at the Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences, since the rice experiment started on July 29, the seedlings of the tall shoot rice variety have grown to a height of about 30 cm (12 inches) and the seedlings of the dwarf rice variety, known as Xiao Wei, have grown to about 5 cm (2 inches).
"The rice seedlings are growing very well," Zheng said, adding that the experiment also contained seedlings of Arabidopsis thaliana, a small flowering plant of the mustard family often used by scientists to study mutations.
“We want to investigate how microgravity can affect the plant flowering time on the molecular level and whether it is possible to use the microgravity environment to control the related process,” she said. Flowering is a crucial stage for plant reproductive development.
China has been sending rice and other crop seeds to space since the 1980s to aid in their mutation and increase their ability to yield when planted on Earth. However, due to the severe circumstances of space, including microgravity, lack of air, and high-energy cosmic rays, producing rice in orbit presents a unique difficulty.
"But if we want to land on and explore Mars, bringing food from Earth is not enough to suffice for the astronauts' long journey and mission in space. We have to find a sustainable food source for long-term space explorations," Zheng added.
More about the Wentian module
One of the main modules of the Tiangong space station is the Wentian laboratory cabin module. It was the first Laboratory Cabin Module to be launched and the first module to be added to the station's Tianhe Core Module. It was successfully docked with Tianhe on July 24, 2022, after being put into orbit from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site.