Israeli chickpea seeds will be among the supplies and equipment sent to the International Space Station (ISS) later this month for a series of experiments aimed at controlling the growth of crops via technology.

Contained for optimal growth in a small device called a “miniature greenhouse,” they will be delivered on Feb. 19 as part of Northrop Grumman’s 17th commercial resupply services mission to the ISS, aboard its Cygnus spacecraft.

The special greenhouses are well-suited for travel to the moon, which will be the next step of the mission.

The seeds are part of a project called “Space Hummus,” which will test hydroponic techniques for plant growth in zero gravity. A superfood with high nutrition, chickpeas grow quickly and easily, making them ideal for space cultivation.

NASA says it’s looking at ways to provide astronauts with nutrients in a long-lasting, easily absorbed form, such as through freshly grown fruits and vegetables; the challenge is how to do that in a closed environment without sunlight or Earth’s gravity.

Scientists will conduct experiments on the ISS using special LEDs to see how well plant growth can be controlled, remotely observing and controlling root growth through video and still images. The goal is to maximize productivity and allow efficient management of resources on future space colonies on the moon and Mars.

Yonatan Winetraub, co-founder of SpaceIL and a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics at Stanford University. Credit: Aviv Labs.

The team believes that perfecting techniques for control—part of a field called synthetic biology—could be essential to growing crops in a space station or on the moon and other planets.

“We can’t let the plans ‘grow wild’ in future colonies because they will quickly run out of resources,” says SpaceIL co-founder Yonatan Winetraub, a Ph.D. candidate in biophysics at Stanford University and visionary behind the experiment. “Our hope is to use our technology to control the rate of chickpea growth in space with zero gravity and limited resources.”

The experiments—led by Winetraub; scientists and engineers from Israel and Stanford University; VC fund Moon2Mars Ventures; and the Desert Mars Analog Ramon Station (D-Mars)—will receive assistance from Yeruham Science Center high-school students and be performed in part by Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe (RAKIA mission, 2022).

The “Space Hummus” experiment is supported by Strauss Group Ltd., an Israeli F&B company; and Haifa Group, which specializes in advanced technological solutions for precision agriculture and has developed a nutrient formula for growing chickpeas in space to ensure high-quality crops per unit area.

“We don’t know if chickpeas can grow in space. This is something that has actually never been done before,” said Winetraub. “The challenge is not just how to grow as many chickpeas as possible, but how to control the way they are grown so that we maximize our limited resources. The more we learn to grow food with fewer resources, the more prepared we will be for the challenges that await us on Earth as well.”

Miniature greenhouse for growth of produce in zero gravity. Credit: Aviv Labs.

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