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Basil Orbits Earth

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August 16, 2007: You'll never guess what was in Barbara Morgan's pocket when she blasted off from Kennedy Space Center last week onboard space shuttle Endeavour.

see captionThe teacher-turned-astronaut carried millions of basil seeds into orbit and onto the International Space Station. Basil ... in space? Well, you never know when the ISS might run into some bland spaghetti sauce.

Right: Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a popular herb for seasoning and cooking. [More]

Seriously, basil in space is cutting-edge research. Astronauts on future missions to the Moon and beyond are going to want to take plants along for the ride--for food, oxygen and even companionship. It's important for NASA to learn how seeds endure space conditions and germinate in low gravity.

In this case, it's not only NASA doing the learning; kids will be too.

Some of the basil seeds will remain on the station to be grown in low gravity. The rest will be returned to Earth and divided into kits for students to study. They'll measure seed germination rates--how fast space basil grows compared to Earth basil--and also learn more about the scientific method. Teachers, click here for information on how to participate.

Morgan's seeds (not really carried in her pocket, but you get the idea) are joining three million other basil seeds that have been flying on the station for a year and are waiting for Morgan to bring them back to Earth.

Most of the "veteran" seeds have actually spent time outside the ISS exposed to breathtaking vacuum, harsh radiation and anything else space can throw at them. They "hung out" in suitcase-sized test beds known as MISSE 3 and 4, short for Materials on the International Space Station Experiment 3 and 4. MISSE is managed by NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia; William Kinard is the principal investigator.

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Above: The Materials on the International Space Station Experiment-3, or MISSE 3, was attached to the outside of the space station in August 2006. The suitcase-sized container is filled with hundreds of materials, including basil seeds, to study how each is affected by the space environment. [More]

To get the seeds to classrooms, NASA works with the George W. Park Seed Company in Greenwood, S.C. The company began its relationship with NASA in the 1980s with the SEEDS (Space Exposed Experiment Developed for Students) program. During that experiment, more than 12 million tomato seeds flew on the Long Duration Exposure Facility – a satellite deployed in 1984 by space shuttle Challenger to provide long-term data on the space environment and its effects on space systems and operations.

"I think the kids will be excited to work with something that's been in space. And to know, for this experiment, there are no answers in the back of a book," says Miria Finckenor, an engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and one of the MISSE investigators.

"We hope to get more students interested in science and reach as many as we did with the tomato seeds experiment," she says. More than 40,000 classrooms in all 50 states and 30 foreign countries participated in that program.

For more information on participating in growing seeds from space, visit http://www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/plantgrowth/home/index.html

Authors: Lori Meggs, Tony Phillips | Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

More Information

In addition to the educational benefits, the Materials on the International Space Station Experiments, managed by NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., are contributing a wealth of data on spacecraft materials back to the International Space Station Program, NASA's Constellation Program and a number of defense programs.

The first two external materials science experiments on the space station flew from 2001 to 2005, and another flew on the station a year later. Upon their return to Earth, the samples were examined by principal investigator William Kinard at Langley, Finckenor and many other researchers involved in the project. One of the most significant results from these test beds is confirmation that the contamination control for the station – the method for tracking whether scientific instruments, windows, radiators and other hardware is staying clean from contaminants such as dust, dirt, or hair – is working.

The experiments showed that samples of the glass used in station windows were better than 90 percent clear, and samples of the same white thermal coatings used on station radiators looked like new, even after four years in space. "We want to keep the windows clean so the astronauts can not only look outside but are also able to snap good photographs of Earth," Finckenor says. "We also want to keep the thermal coatings white so that the thermal control system – which includes the radiators that keep the station and its crew at comfortable temperature – works properly."

The sixth materials experiment, or MISSE-6, will fly to the station on board STS-123, scheduled for launch in early 2008. It will carry 140 samples from the Marshall Center, including materials such as the heatshield, radiation shielding and data matrix identification markers for the Orion crew exploration vehicle. That vehicle is capable of carrying up to six astronauts to low Earth orbit atop the in-line, two-stage rocket, Ares I crew launch vehicle.

Web links:

Greenhouses for Mars --When humans go to the moon or Mars, they'll probably take plants with them. NASA-supported researchers are learning how greenhouses might work on other planets.

Leafy Green Astronauts -- (Science@NASA) NASA scientists are learning how to grow plants in space. Such crops will eventually take their place alongside people, microbes and machines in self-contained habitats for astronauts.

Green Generations -- (Science@NASA) It looks like an ordinary pea pod. And it is. That's what so amazing ... because this pod lives in space.

The Physics of Space Gardens -- (Science@NASA) It could only happen in space: A tiny bubble of air hangs suspended inside a droplet of water. The droplet rests in the cup of a delicate green leaf, yet the stalk doesn't bend at all.

Igniting the Flame of Knowledge -- STS-118 Educational Resources

NASA's Future: The Vision for Space Exploration