Tupperware Aiding NASA Development of Plant Growing System

International Space Station Orbiting Earth

Photo: International Space station orbiting Earth.

According to a recent Forbes report, consumer food container company Tupperware Brands is playing an integral role in helping NASA develop a new plant growing system aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

On April 2, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft made its 14th resupply to the ISS. One area of scientific research for the mission is furthering research on growing vegetables in space. Since 2015, astronauts have grown crops in space using the Veggie, or Vegetable Production System. The Veggie is a plant growth unit deployed on board that grows vegetables such as lettuce and tomatoes to provide a continuous source of fresh food to the crew. It also helps NASA scientists determine how plants sense, develop and respond to gravity. By growing plants in space, scientists believe they can understand how to improve plant production on Earth as well.

Tupperware’s involvement relates to the plant pillow currently used to grow plants. With the Veggie system, a seed is inserted into a round soft surface—the plant pillow—inside a circular container. Astronauts then inject the plant pillow with a syringe filled with water. Prior Veggie experiments showed that some plants did better than others based on the regularity of the water and oxygen they received. For this current mission, the Veggie experiment uses a new method to deliver nutrients to plants through the Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS), a new plant growing system designed to generate uniform plant growth through watering and keep the root structures of the plants in place.

NASA Research Scientist Howard Levine designed and created a prototype of PONDS in 2017. The prototype was sent to Techshot to fine-tune PONDS for use on the ISS.

Techshot called in Tupperware Brands to create a new system that would be an alternative to the plant pillows of previous missions.

Tupperware and Techshot developed the new semi-hydroponic system that needs less crew maintenance. PONDS uses absorbent mats, instead of plant pillows, to wick water to seeds and roots through a reservoir system. The reservoir system passively disperses water evenly through each plant cylinder instead of injecting water into the plant pillow with a syringe in the PONDS’ reservoirs. This creates a more consistent supply of water, which is needed to grow seedlings into mature plants and crops.

In a NASA release, Veggie project manager Nicole Dufour said the PONDS units have features designed to mitigate microgravity effects on water distribution, increase oxygen availability and provide sufficient room for root zone growth.

PONDS devices are single-use items and will be discarded after the plants are grown and harvested. This 14th SpaceX resupply mission has seven PONDS devices in orbit. These include four black opaque modules to grow Outredgeous red romaine lettuce, a part of the Open Source Seed Initiative; two modules with clear windows and a removable cover which lets astronauts observe red romaine lettuce root growth and evaluate water distribution in the hydroponic reservoir; and, a clear module that will be used for testing and videography to look at the microgravity hydrodynamics of the reservoir.

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