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China Successfully Grows Vegetables on Tiangong Space Station

China's Tiangong Space Station
Chinese astronauts grew vegetables on the Tiangong space station, contributing to future deep space exploration. Credit: wikimedia commons /Shujianyang cc by 4.0

Astronauts from China’s Shenzhou 16 mission are currently cultivating plants on the Tiangong space station. This mission is part of their preparation for future journeys into the vast reaches of space.

Mission leader Jing Haipeng, along with novice astronauts Zhu Yangzhu and Gui Haichao, have been on the Tiangong space station since late May. Their return to Earth was scheduled for October 31st following the transfer of station control to the freshly arrived Shenzhou 17 mission team.

Jing and his team have been busy growing vegetables in space using special equipment. The first set of equipment was put to use in June and has already produced four batches of lettuce. The second one, which was put to use in August, is specifically utilized in growing cherry tomatoes and green onions.

Comparison of how plants grow in space and Earth

The China Astronaut Research and Training Center has established Earth-based replicas, which are essentially duplicates or copies of conditions in space. These replicas serve as valuable tools for researchers, enabling them to assess how plants grow in the unique environment of outer space as compared to our home planet.

By using these replicas, scientists can examine differences and variations in plant growth in the two environments. The comparisons offer valuable insights into the effects of space conditions on plant development, shedding light on challenges astronauts might face when growing food during long missions to distant celestial bodies.

Yang Renze, a researcher from the China Astronaut Research and Training Center, explained, “This vegetable cultivation apparatus is a key part of the whole Environmental Control and Life Support System [ECLSS], and it is used in space to verify the relevant technologies. In the future, we will focus on rapid and large-scale cultivation.”

Yang added, “The system can be applied to the field of deep space exploration, including our crewed lunar and Mars landing missions.”

Sustainable space environment

One important role of the plant-growing equipment, which is a crucial part of the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), is to help create a sustainable environment in space.

These plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and use photosynthesis to produce oxygen. Additionally, they help recycle and purify water through a process called transpiration.

China has ambitious space goals. They aim to send two astronauts to the moon before the year 2030. They are also planning to construct a moon base known as the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) in the coming decade.

While a crewed mission to Mars is in the more distant future, it is a part of China’s long-term space exploration plans, serving as evidence of their interest in venturing to the Red Planet.

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