First space zinnia blooms. Why it brings us closer to Mars

L’astronauta Scott Kelly ha pubblicato la foto della prima zinnia sbocciata nello spazio. Segno che anche i fiori possono crescere in condizioni di microgravità.

After the lettuce grown in the International Space Station (ISS), it’s now time for flowers, or better, zinnias. Astronaut Scott Kelly has posted the pictures of a zinnia flower with orange petals, bloomed at 400 kilometres from the Earth.


The first space zinnia bloomed in space © Scott Kelly/Nasa


The experiment, carried out to better understand how plants react to microgravity conditions, with humidity and light situations extremely different from the Earth, will be useful to draw up a sort of textbook on cultivation and growth of edible vegetable species, also in preparation for the next journeys to Mars.


As in Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, where the protagonist is forced to grow plants to survive, practicing what is defined “autonomous gardening” will be crucial for astronauts.

Astronauts, the new gardeners

Why zinnias? “The zinnia plant is very different from lettuce,” Trent Smith, the veggie project manager. “It is more sensitive to environmental parameters and light characteristics. It has a longer growth duration between 60 and 80 days. Thus, it is a more difficult plant to grow, and allowing it to flower, along with the longer growth duration, makes it a good precursor to a tomato plant.”


The entire experiment has been told on NASA’s website. Astronauts underwent moments of discouragement, as the plants often suffered the excessive humidity (with the formation of mould) and the lack of water.


First space zinnia at the International Space Station © Scott Kelly/Nasa


By Christmas Eve, Smith said he thought the plants needed more water, and he didn’t comply with the team’s watering schedule. “You know, I think if we’re going to Mars, and we were growing stuff, we would be responsible for deciding when the stuff needed water. Kind of like in my backyard, I look at it and say ‘Oh, maybe I should water the grass today.’ I think this is how this should be handled,” he said.


This is what these kinds of experiments are for: finding out what doesn’t work and trying to understand how to figure it out. And this is exactly what astronauts did, allowing the first zinnia flower to bloom in space. Its orange petals seem to be painted on a black, deep canvas, with a blue pearl on the background: the Earth.

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