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)

UNCG professor leads NASA experiment


By Alyssa Bedrosian


A UNCG-led spaceflight experiment – that may ultimately help humans grow plants on Mars and the Moon – launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in June.
Spearheaded by Dr. John Z. Kiss, dean of UNCG’s College of Arts and Sciences, the joint NASA-European Space Agency 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 is 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 is the principal investigator for NASA, and Dr. Javier Medina serves as the principal investigator for ESA. They sent sixteen experimental containers – with approximately 1,700 mouse-eared cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) seeds – to the International Space Station to grow into seedlings under varying light and gravity conditions. Video of the movement and growth of the seedlings was downlinked to Earth in real time and analyzed at Kiss’ lab on UNCG’s campus. This fall, UNCG students are participating 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.”