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Outer Space, Plants, and Computer Vision

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center
Cosmonaut Maxim Suraev, Expedition 22 Flight Engineer, holds Mizun lettuce plants in the Service Module on December 31, 2009.

This interview originally aired on January 9, 2018.

Plants growing in space have no gravity to assist them, there is minimum light, and there is more radiation exposurethan the plants would receive on Earth. However, plant production is expected to be an important part of future deep space missions.

In this River to River conversation, host Ben Kieffer is joined by Iowa State University graduate student Therin Young, who is just starting a year-long fellowship with the Iowa Space Grant Consortium focusing on using "computer vision" to have computers measure, or phenotype, plants remotely. 

"Eventually we are going to go to Mars, we know that now. But a challenge is, how do we nourish the astronauts while they are are traveling?" he says. "To do that, we're going to need to grow plants in deep space."

Plants need to be in small enclosed spaces. If scientists have to open the enclosures, that can contaminate the plants’ chambers. So Young is designing programs for computers to do the assessments of plants.

Young is working alongside other researchers using a special chamber to grow plants on Earth that can mimic some of the conditions of space to test the possibilities for the future.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River