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Can you grow plants without soil? Crew-4 astronauts will do it in space

SpaceX on Wednesday launched four astronauts to the Space Station on a mission to conduct science experiments as humans push towards the Moon and plan to journey to Mars in the coming decades. Nasa astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, and Jessica Watkins along with European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti will dock with the flying outpost on Thursday.

As part of the mission, the four astronauts will conduct several experiments on the flying laboratory, including an attempt to grow plants without soil. The team will continue the work by the Crew-3 mission, which will hand over the experiment already underway to the new team.

WHAT EXPERIMENTS WILL CREW-4 DO IN SPACE?

After docking with the Space Station on Thursday, the four-member crew will engage in a series of scientific experiments that include hydroponic (liquid-based) and aeroponic (air-based) techniques to grow plants without soil. Dubbed XROOTS, the team will use video and still images to evaluate plant growth throughout the entire life cycle.

“Current space-based plant systems are small and use particulate media-based systems to deliver water and nutrients. These do not scale up well in space due to mass, containment, maintenance, and sanitation issues. Hydroponic and aeroponic techniques could enable the production of crops on a larger scale for future space exploration,” Nasa said in a statement.

Crew-4 will also be involved with the Protein-Based Artificial Retina Manufacturing experiment that aims at evaluating a manufacturing process to develop artificial human retinas using a light-activated protein called bacteriorhodopsin, which could replace the function of damaged light-sensing cells in the eye. If tested successfully, this could lead to millions on Earth getting vision using AI.

The astronauts will also be working on Kibo Robot Programming Challenge that allows students to create programs to control Astrobee, a free-flying robot aboard the International Space Station. To test the technology, students have written software to use multiple free-flying satellites to construct 3D models of a target object. “The ability to create such models of unknown objects in space using one or two small satellites has potential applications for a wide range of space missions,” Nasa has said.

Medical studies have been one of the biggest focuses for astronauts in space as they bid to ensure a healthy lifestyle for crews that will take to Moon and Mars in the future. The Crew-4 will continue the tradition as they demonstrate tests using a modified, commercial off-the-shelf device to diagnose certain medical conditions. The experiment named rHEALTH uses flow cytometry, a method using lasers to sort and identify cells, and can analyze cell count and cell characteristics; detect microorganisms, biomarkers, and proteins; and diagnose health disorders such as blood cancers.

The experiments on board the flying outpost are set to enhance human understanding and not just create the technology for tomorrow but aid humans on Earth as well.

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India today