Astronauts on extended space missions have a crucial need: sustainable sources of food and oxygen. This is where plants come in, but not all are equipped to endure the severe environment of space. A prime contender has emerged, and it’s the Earth’s tiniest flowering plant: watermeal.
This diminutive aquatic plant, found across Asia, particularly in Thailand, is a focus of intensive study at Mahidol University. With a diameter of barely 1 millimeter, watermeal is not just intriguing due to its size but its potential benefits for space voyages.
It’s an oxygen powerhouse thanks to photosynthesis and is nutritionally dense, and rich in protein. On Earth, it’s already a familiar component in various dishes, including soups and salads.
To determine its viability in space, the team at Mahidol University subjected watermeal to tests mimicking extreme gravitational conditions. Using clinostats, they simulated the weightlessness of space. The findings were encouraging: watermeal exhibited consistent growth in both microgravity and normal gravitational conditions.
However, the researchers pushed further, testing watermeal under intense gravity at the European Space Agency’s Large Diameter Centrifuge in the Netherlands. Remarkably, even under 20g forces, watermeal thrived.
Given its swift lifecycle of 5-10 days, multiple plant generations were observed in just weeks, providing a comprehensive dataset. With these positive initial results, watermeal’s prospects as a vital resource for astronauts on long-duration space missions appear bright.