Feat will help scientists find sustainable food source for long-term exploration missions
Chinese astronauts of the Shenzhou XIV mission have returned with the world’s first rice seeds produced in orbit, a feat that will allow scientists to probe the effects of microgravity on rice growth and find a sustainable food source for long-term space explorations.
On Sunday night, astronauts Chen Dong, Liu Yang and Cai Xuzhe touched down at the Dongfeng landing site in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, according to the China Manned Space Agency.
They were in orbit for 183 days, during which they monitored the completion of China’s Tiangong space station and several life science experiments.
One such experiment involved reproducing the entire life cycle of rice for the first time in space, which begins with a seed germinating into a seedling and ends with a mature plant producing new seeds. The experiment began on July 29, and after 120 days in orbit, rice grains were successfully produced.
The new seeds, along with other biosamples, have been delivered to the Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. They will be transferred to labs in Shanghai for further research.
The package from space also contained seedlings of Arabidopsis thaliana, commonly known as thale cress, a small flowering plant of the mustard family that is often used by scientists to study mutations.
The institute said that researchers would conduct microbiological studies, along with cellular and metabolic analysis, to better understand how microgravity affects these plants on a molecular level. This is expected to provide insight into creating new crops that are more adaptive to the space environment.
Zheng Huiqiong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Center for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences, said seeds were crucial for growing new crops and supporting long-term survival of humans in space.
In the past, thale cress, rapeseed, peas and wheat were the only plants that were reproduced in space (by astronauts of other countries), she said, adding that scientists could now include rice, a staple food for millions, on the list.
While more research is planned, Zheng said, scientists had already noticed several interesting differences between rice grown on Earth and in space.
For example, the flowering period for the space rice begins slightly earlier than the rice planted on Earth. Flowering is a crucial stage in a plant’s reproductive development.
The stems of rice produced in orbit are neatly spaced and not compact like on Earth. The dwarf variety of rice becomes shorter in space and the tall shoot variety sees no change, she added.