Last week, a SpaceX Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station (ISS), where it delivered three tons of goods, as well as a couple of super-muscular "mighty mice" for a genetic study. The company's next resupply mission to the ISS is scheduled for March 2020, and will be packing another unique cargo: cannabis.
The mission was contracted by Front Range Biosciences, an agri-tech company, in partnership with SpaceCells USA and BioServe Space Technologies. This doesn't mean, however, that astronauts will get the chance to use it -- although they're technically the highest people in the universe, constantly orbiting the planet from more than 400 km from Earth
The shipment will contain hemp seeds, which is a cannabis strain with low levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. Hemp was made legal again last year, allowing the experiment to gain federal approval. Meanwhile, Cannabis sativa is still illegal at the federal level in the United States, although many states have legalized its medical and recreational use.
The experiment, made up of 480 plant cell cultures, will be stored in an incubator for 30 days, while scientists monitor its development remotely from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Besides hemp, plant cultures of coffee will also be grown and monitored on the space station.
Researchers are interested to see how microgravity and spaceflight affect the hemp and coffee cultures. There is evidence that suggests plants may experience mutations while growing in space. Researchers would like to study these mutations and see what happens to the plants once they are returned to Earth.
"We've been fortunate to be a leader in the new space industry and we're excited to explore these amazing opportunities with the team at Front Range Biosciences and BioServe," said Peter McCullagh, CEO of SpaceCells. "These are big ideas we're pursuing and there's a massive opportunity to bring to market new Chemotypes, as well as Plants that can better adapt to drought and cold conditions. We expect to prove through these and other missions that we can adapt the food supply to climate change."
Some of these mutations may turn out to be beneficial, so there is an incentive for commercial applications. For instance, the space-grown hemp and coffee may prove to be more resilient to climate change in some areas. Previously, ZME Science reported how global heating is causing a coffee crisis (Oh, boy!) -- results suggest that coffee-suitable areas will be reduced 73–88% by 2050 across warming scenarios. Another study found that over half of the world's wild coffee is facing extinction.
"We envision this to be the first of many experiments together," said Louis Stodieck, Chief Scientist of BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "In the future, we plan for the crew to harvest and preserve the plants at different points in their grow-cycle so we can analyze which metabolic pathways are turned on and turned off. This is a fascinating area of study that has considerable potential."