Chinese astronauts have successfully grown rice aboard the Tiangong Space Station.
The young seedlings could offer tremendous insight into how food could be grown in space on a larger scale, so as to support longer crewed missions and even off-planet colonies, said officials at the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA).
Plants and flowers have been cultivated in microgravity before but CNSA has demonstrated that it could support rice seedlings through their entire life cycle in less-than-ideal conditions.
The rice was shuttled into space on board the Wentian laboratory module in late July. The bus-sized vessel is one of three modules that make up the Tiangong Space Station.
Wentian is laden with apparatus and equipment which will be used to conduct several experiments, one of which involves the cultivation of rice strains.
Astronauts cultivated tall shoot rice which grew to a height of 30 centimetres, while another variety of dwarf rice, Xiao Wei, grew to roughly 5 centimetres.
A mustard strain, known as Arabidopsis Thaliana, was grown in conjunction with the rice strains. The variety has a small genome, grows quickly and requires limited space, making it useful for studying genetic mutations.
Zheng told the media a primary objective for researchers is to establish whether flowering times for the plants are affected by the low-gravity environment and if there is a significant change to the subjects at a molecular level.
The team is hopeful its research can discover methods to boost yields which would be crucial to feeding crews on journeys beyond the moon. Storing food supplies brought from Earth is simply not practical, according to Zheng.
A 2009 study by NASA also found that the nutrients in space foods in storage broke down over time, growing and replenishing smaller food stores would solve that problem.
The International Space Station (ISS) has also enjoyed some recent success growing vegetables. Jessica Watkins, an engineer with NASA, demonstrated that radishes and edible greens could be grown and harvested in space using hydroponics, a system of agriculture that requires no soil.
Soil poses several problems on board a space vessel, according to experts. Notably, the low gravity means the substrate does not hold its shape and small soil particles would inevitably block important air vents on the ship. For this exact reason, salt and pepper is an extreme no-no, according to NASA.