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Washington: As crew aboard the International Space Station (ISS) get ready to harvest the flowering zinnia plants on Valentine's Day, scientists on the ground are doing exactly the same to learn more about growing crops for deep space missions and, eventually, Mars.
Mesmerising Zinnia plants from the Veggie ground control system are being harvested in the flight equipment development laboratory in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The ground plants did not experience some of the same stressors as those grown simultaneously on the ISS - like unexpected fungus growth.
However, some of the zinnia plants aboard the floating laboratory pulled through due to collaboration between the astronauts and the ground team at Kennedy.
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly who became an autonomous gardener provided researchers with even more information about how to effectively grow plants in space than they expected, the space agency said in a statement.
"I think we've learned a lot about doing this kind of experiment. We're being farmers in space," Kelly said. "I was extra motivated to bring the plants back to life. I'm going to harvest them on Valentine's Day."
Researchers hope to gather good data regarding long duration seed stow and germination.
The experiment will also tell them whether pollen could affect crew health and how having colourful flowering plants to grow could improve crew morale.
"We need to learn a tremendous amount to help develop more robust sustainable food production systems as NASA moves toward long duration exploration and the journey to Mars," added Gioia Massa, NASA Kennedy payload scientist for Veggie.
Veggie is the biggest plant/flower experiment to fly on the station. According to the behavioural health scientists, part of the pleasure for astronauts is just being involved in meaningful work. But crews in space aren't the only ones positively affected by growing plants.
"We are sad to see them go. We have been caring for them for quite a while. But it's for the interest of science so we can go to Mars," noted Chuck Spern, project engineer with Vencore on the Engineering Services Contract at Kennedy.
The plant pillows containing the zinnia seeds were activated in the Veggie system on the space station and in the ground control experiment on November 13 last year.
The plants grew for nearly three months, much longer than the previous red romaine lettuce crop which grew for 33 days.
The flowers were watered and monitored by Kelly and other crew members on the space station.
"The flowers going to seed are a good demonstration for sustainable food crops," said Nicole Dufour, NASA mechanical engineer. "It's a good example of starting with seeds and ending with seeds, which is what you need to sustain crop growth."
The zinnia crop will give researchers insights that are valuable for a number of longer duration and fruiting crops, such as tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and other staple crops such as beans and peanuts.
The next Veggie experiment called Veg-03 will be delivered to the space station on a future commercial resupply services mission. (IANS)