UNCG Professor Leads NASA Experiment

Posted on May 31, 2017

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The UNCG-led experiment will launch Thursday on a similar SpaceX rocket. (Credit: NASA)

A UNCG-led spaceflight experiment – that may ultimately help humans grow plants on Mars and the Moon – will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, June 1, at 5:55 p.m. on SpaceX CRS-11.

Spearheaded by Dr. John Z. Kiss, dean of UNCG’s College of Arts and Sciences, the joint NASA-European Space Agency (ESA) experiment is the third in a series of studies that examine how light and gravity control plant growth and development. The knowledge gained from the experiment, Seedling Growth-3, will help scientists understand how to effectively and efficiently grow plants in space.

“Plants are integral as we plan for long-term manned space missions and the development of colonies on the Moon and Mars – bringing all food and supplies necessary for a long-term mission or for colonization is not tenable,” said Kiss, who also serves as a professor of biology. “To make human habitation of other worlds a possibility, we need to be able to grow crops in greenhouses in space. If astronauts can grow their own food, then we have created a new paradigm for space travel and habitation.”

Arabidopsis thaliana seeds are mounted in a specific orientation onto supportive membranes for the Seedling Growth-2 mission. (Credit: NASA/Dominic Hart)

Additionally, the results may help improve crop production on Earth, particularly in harsh environments.

Kiss serves as the principal investigator for NASA, and Dr. Javier Medina serves as the principal investigator for ESA. Kiss and Medina will send 16 experimental containers – with approximately 1,700 mouse-eared cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) seeds  – to the International Space Station, where they will grow into seedlings under varying light and gravity conditions.

Video of the movement and growth of the seedlings will be downlinked to Earth in real time and analyzed at Kiss’ lab on UNCG’s campus. Later this summer, NASA will return the seedlings to the lab for molecular analyses, and starting in the fall, UNCG students will participate in data collection and analysis.

The project, funded by a grant from NASA, will continue until 2019 in order to allow for analysis of the extensive amount of data generated from the spaceflight experiment.

Kiss has worked closely with NASA for three decades, serving as the principal investigator on seven spaceflight experiments prior to Seedling Growth-3. In 2014, he received the NASA Outstanding Public Leadership Medal “for exceptional contributions in spaceflight research in the fundamental biology of plants in support of NASA’s exploration mission.”

To view a live stream of the launch on Thursday, visit spaceflightnow.com. For timely updates on the experiment, follow Kiss on Twitter (@JZK60).

Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photos by NASA
[Original Story]

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