Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) are adding a new item to their menu of space-grown food: Chili peppers. An experiment has recently begun to grow the spicy peppers in space for the first time.
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough put 48 chili pepper seeds into the space station’s Advanced Planet Habitat (APH) this week, initiating an experiment called Plant Habitat-04. The aim is to grow the peppers over the next four months and then harvest them to see how they have grown.
Although many other vegetables have been grown on the space station, like pak choi, lettuce, radishes, and more, the chili peppers are a step up from these in terms of complexity. While radishes, for example, can mature in one month, the chili peppers require a much longer growing time which makes them more challenging to grow.
“It is one of the most complex plant experiments on the station to date because of the long germination and growing times,” explained Matt Romeyn, principal investigator for Plant Habitat-04. “We have previously tested flowering to increase the chance for a successful harvest because astronauts will have to pollinate the peppers to grow fruit.”
The point of the experiment is not only to see whether vegetables can be grown in space in order to provide food for astronauts on long-duration missions like an eventual crewed mission to Mars. There is also a direct psychological benefit to astronauts when they interact with and nurture living plants and eventually get to enjoy the fresh food they have worked hard to grow.
“Growing colorful vegetables in space can have long-term benefits for physical and psychological health,” Romeyn said. “We are discovering that growing plants and vegetables with colors and smells helps to improve astronauts’ well-being.”
You might be wondering how spicy the chili peppers will be, considering that on Earth peppers can range from mild to mouth-scorching. The type of pepper chosen for the experiment is the NuMex ‘Española Improved’ pepper, a hybrid Hatch pepper, but exactly how spicy the space peppers will be is hard to predict because it depends on a wide range of factors.
“The spiciness of a pepper is determined by environmental growing conditions. The combination of microgravity, light quality, temperature, and rootzone moisture will all affect flavor, so it will be interesting to find out how the fruit will grow, ripen, and taste,” said LaShelle Spencer, PH-04’s project science team lead.
“This is important because the food astronauts eat needs to be as good as the rest of their equipment,” Spencer continued. “To successfully send people to Mars and bring them back to Earth, we will not only require the most nutritious foods, but the best tasting ones as well.”