Cabbage harvested aboard space station: NASA

Cabbage harvested aboard space station: NASA

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have harvested the first crop of Chinese cabbage after spending nearly a month tending to the leafy greens, according to NASA.

While the space station crew will get to eat some of the Tokyo Bekana Chinese cabbage harvested by astronaut Peggy Whitson, the rest is being saved for scientific study back at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre.

This is the fifth crop grown aboard the station, and the first Chinese cabbage. The crop was chosen after evaluating several leafy vegetables on a number of criteria, such as how well they grow and their nutritional value.

The top four candidates were sent to NASA's Johnson Space Center's Space Food Systems team, where they brought in volunteer tasters to sample the choices. The Tokyo Bekana turned out to be the most highly rated in all the taste categories, NASA said.

Astronauts often report that their taste buds dull during spaceflight, and they frequently add hot sauce, honey or soy sauce to otherwise bland-tasting fare. One explanation for this may be that, in a reduced gravity environment, the fluid in astronauts' bodies shifts around equally, rather than being pulled down into their legs as we're accustomed to on Earth.

However, there is a backup plan to ensure the crew's culinary delight. If the fresh Chinese cabbage they grew does not awaken their taste buds on its own, packets of ranch dressing were also sent up to help them enjoy the fruits (or veggies) of their labour, NASA said.

This year, a second Veggie system will be sent up to be seated next to the current one. It will provide side-by-side comparisons for future plant experiments and will hopefully make astronauts happy to have a bigger space garden.

Aboard the next resupply mission to the space station will be an experiment involving Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant, and petri plates inside the Veggie facility. Arabidopsis is the genetic model of the plant world, making it a perfect sample organism for performing genetic studies.

"These experiments will provide a key piece of the puzzle of how plants adjust their physiology to meet the needs of growing in a place outside their evolutionary experience," said Dr Anna Lisa Paul, the principal Investigator, from University of Florida in the US.

"And the more complete our understanding, the more success we will have in future missions as we take plants with us off planet," said Paul.

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