Plant research is carried out onboard the International Space Station (ISS) using different research platforms. The European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS) has provided groundbreaking knowledge on plant biology through a number of successful experiments.
The EMCS after its installation in the EXPRESS rack 3A during Expedition 13. Photo: NASA.
A miniaturized experimental greenhouse
EMCS is a small and experimental "greenhouse" for life science research in space. It is an ESA experiment facility, dedicated to studying plant biology at various gravitational conditions in experiments led by both ESA and NASA. The facility, currently located in the Columbus Module of the ISS, contains an incubator with two spinning rotors. The rotors carry experiment containers which house the actual plants being studied. The rotors provide required infrastructure to control conditions such as temperature, humidity and levels of O2 and CO2.
Relevant resources for more information on EMCS:
- ESA fact-sheet: European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS) (PDF from esa.int, 3.5MB)
- Review article: Jost, AIK et al. (2015):
The Utilization of Plant Facilities on the ISS (Plants journal, open access)
- Review article: Zabel, P et al. (2014): Plant growth chambers and greenhouse modules for space (PDF from dlr.de, 1,1MB)
- N-USOC web pages: Description of past EMCS experiments
EMCS rotors simulate plant growth on Mars and Moon
The two rotors inside EMCS can be individually programmed to provide desired gravity, from microgravity when not rotating and up to 2.0 g. In a typical experiment, one rotor can be standing still to provide microgravity conditions, while the other can rotate at 59.5 rpm providing gravitational conditions as experienced on Earth (1.0 g). Gravitational levels can be set to meet the scientific requirement of the selected experiment, for example to simulate plant growth at martian gravity of 0.376 g.
Parallel experiments using model plants
In its current configuration, the EMCS has two rotors which both can accommodate 4 experiment containers for parallel experiments. The experiment containers are 60 x 60 x 160mm and carry experiment-unique equipment and the seeds and plants being studied. Typically, experiments conducted in the EMCS use model plants such as Arabidopsis.
TIME SCALE towards next-level life-science experiments
The EMCS modular design provides the possibility to replace and upgrade individual subsystems. TIME SCALE will develop improved cultivation system concepts and technology for next-level life science experiments in space. Topics include larger experiment containers and cultivation concepts for higher plants (crops) and algae, cultivation system with closed water and nutrient management system and plant health monitoring.
User support and operation
During the experiments on the ISS, the EMCS is commanded by the Norwegian User Support and Operations Centre (N-USOC). N-USOC is located at CIRiS in Trondheim, Norway, as one of seven USOCs for ESA's payloads and science operations. Experiments can be monitored from both N-USOC and NASA Ames Research Center, which provide the scientists with experimental data such as images, and data on g-level, atmosphere and temperature. When required, experiment samples are returned for further investigations on Earth.