Exactly 28 chickpeas were launched to the International Space Station Saturday as part of an Israeli-led experiment into the viability of growing the legume in space.
The chickpeas will be used to study germination in zero gravity. They were launched to the ISS from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, alongside eight tons of cargo aboard an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft.
They will be delivered to the American side of the ISS in a sealed miniature greenhouse, about the size of a quart container of milk.
The cargo shuttle will reach the ISS, located 300 miles (482 kilometers) above earth, after a day of travel.
The Israeli-led team will attempt to germinate and grow the chickpeas remotely using special software in an environment devoid of gravity and natural light.
The plants in the greenhouse will be grown for one month and then will be refrigerated until they are brought down to Earth in June.
The experiment is being directed by Israeli scientist Yonatan Winetraub of Stanford University, alongside other Israeli researchers.
To inspire the next generation of space enthusiasts, Winetraub has enlisted a cohort of young scientists on earth to help him with his experiment.
Middle and high school students in 1,000 classrooms across Israel will grow chickpeas in boxes they have constructed to compare to the chickpeas in space.
The students’ experimental control group will measure the differences growing chickpeas with gravity versus those grown in space without it.
Winetraub is one of the three founders of SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit best known for attempting to land a spaceship on the moon. The Beresheet vessel, named after the Hebrew word for the first book of the Bible, crash-landed on the moon’s surface on April 11, 2019.
He teamed up with NASA for the space hummus mission.
Until recently, astronauts have mainly eaten packaged, dehydrated food. As it plans missions to go deeper into space, NASA has been exploring fresh food production that requires minimal resources and results in minimal waste.
While the US governmental organization has succeeded in growing lettuce, cabbage, and kale in space, under a program named “Veggie,” it has never tried to grow chickpeas.
Winetraub floated adding chickpeas to the program for several reasons: They are a superfood, packed with iron, phosphorus and folic acid, in addition to protein. They are easy to grow, and they mature quickly.
His team is curious to see how the roots will grow. On earth, thanks to gravity, plant roots know to grow down. In space, where there is little or no gravity, will the roots grow down or up? Will they grow in circles? And of obvious importance: once grown, how will the chickpeas taste?
If all goes according to plan, could astronauts feasibly make hummus in space with their germinated chickpeas? Winetraub is hopeful the answer is yes.
“We are working on it,” he said.