Washington: Tupperware, a household name when it comes to keeping food fresh, is now helping NASA improve astronauts' diet with its airtight plastic containers at the International Space Station (ISS).
Since 2015, NASA astronauts have supplemented their space diet with fresh greens grown in the Vegetable Production System known as "Veggie" on the ISS.
One of the challenges with growing plants in space in "Veggie" has been keeping them properly watered.
The Tupperware Brands Corporation has now lent its design expertise to help develop a new approach to watering plants in space, NASA said in a statement on Friday.
With the "Veggie" system, astronauts have to push water into each plant pillow with a syringe.
In previous crops grown in the "Veggie" system using pillows, some plants fared better than others because not all the plants received equal amounts of water and oxygen.
"The primary goal of this newly developed plant growing system, the Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System, or PONDS, is to achieve uniform plant growth," said Nicole Dufour, "Veggie" Project Manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
NASA research scientist Howard Levine initially designed and prototyped "PONDS" but in early 2017, handed it off to Techshot -- a private spaceflight services firm -- to further develop and certify the demonstration unit for use on the orbiting laboratory.
Techshot then reached out to Tupperware to help create the new system that would provide an alternative to the plant pillows.
"PONDS units have features that are designed to mitigate microgravity effects on water distribution, increase oxygen availability and provide sufficient room for root zone growth," said Dufour.
The new PONDS system requires less crew maintenance and uses absorbent mats that leverage the basic principles of surface tension and capillary action to wick water to seeds and roots through a reservoir system.
This approach passively disperses water evenly through each plant cylinder contained within the PONDS' reservoirs, facilitating consistent seed germination and seedling development into mature plants.
"Tupperware brings a wealth of innovative design and knowledge of plastics to this project," said Dave Reed, Techshot PONDS project manager and the company's director of launch operations.
The new SpaceX CRS-14 commercial resupply mission has included seven PONDS modules plus an adapter plate so the modules can be installed in the "Veggie" system.
The four black opaque modules will grow "Outredgeous" red romaine lettuce -- the same lettuce that has been grown previously in the "Veggie" facility -- for about a month.
Six more PONDS modules are slated to launch on an Orbital ATK commercial resupply mission later this year and will be seeded with Mizuna mustard.
Both the lettuce and the mustard have already been grown in plant pillows as a part of previous Veggie experiments, so the plant pillow and PONDS growth data will be compared against one another, said NASA.