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Can cuttings be used to reproduce plants in space?

Is it possible to produce large quantities of high quality vegetables on a space station, about 320 kilometers away from earth? To answer this question, three twelfth-grade students from the agricultural program at the Edith Stein School in Ravensburg, Germany, set up a research project to examine how crops can be cultivated in the microgravity of space. The research trial is scheduled for take-off to the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2015, and will have the scientific and financial sponsorship of BASF.

 “We are excited about this project and about working with forward-thinking young people who strive for groundbreaking ideas and innovation. With our 100 years of experience in agriculture, it has been a thrilling challenge to investigate what could come next and how to achieve the ultimate goal of growing and reproducing plants on a space station,” said Dr. Harald Rang, Senior Vice President Research & Development, BASF Crop Protection.

Under normal gravitational conditions on earth, cuttings can be used to reproduce plants. Roots and leaves can grow and further develop from these cuttings. The roots grow towards the earth's center, in the direction of gravity, and the sprouts, in contrast, grow towards their light source, the sun.

If cuttings could be used for the reproduction of plants in microgravity, this would be a major step forward in the effort to supply long-term space flights – e.g. to Mars – with food from space farming. However, until now, experiments conducted in microgravity have focused on studying the growth of the seedlings' roots. In contrast to seedlings, cuttings do not have a root system. Thus, the question the students are attempting to answer with their experiment is simple but groundbreaking: Can cuttings grow their own root system without gravity to guide them?

Experimental set-up supported by BASF’s fungicide research
To ensure the success of the experiment, the student research team is currently developing an appropriate experimental design for the ISS. BASF is providing knowledge on how to keep the plants healthy and free from fungal disease during the foreseen 30 days in the ISS environment. The students will do an internship with experts at the BASF Agricultural Center in Limburgerhof, Germany, before conducting trials at Kennedy Space Center laboratories in Florida.

 This is the first German student project to be included in NASA's educational program via the Space Act Agreement with NanoRacks.

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