Cotton Farming in Space: Submit Your Ideas for Sustainability Experiments

Cotton is a widely-used product, but its production uses huge amounts of water. CASIS has launched a challenge for researchers to use the microgravity environment on the space station to potentially find ways to make cotton more sustainable. (Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A competition designed to bring cotton farming aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is now officially open for entries. 

Organized by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a nonprofit that manages the national laboratory aboard the station, the ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge invites researchers to propose experiments that leverage the lab's microgravity environment and that could ultimately identify ways to improve the efficiency and sustainability of cotton production on Earth. For example, these experiments could demonstrate new methods that reduce water use or minimize chemical applications. 

"Researchers are encouraged to submit concepts focused on, but not limited to: fluid dynamics or fluid flow to improve seed germination and plant water-use efficiency, testing of different cotton cultivars exposed to microgravity to monitor gene expression and water stress, and remote sensing applications to improve cotton production through crop monitoring," CASIS said in a statement

Researchers have grown various plants in space, including flowers and lettuce (shown here). The ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge is calling on researchers to utilize the space environment to help make cotton production on Earth more sustainable. (Image credit: Gioia Massa/NASA)

Used in the manufacture of clothing and other textiles, cotton is a thirsty and resource-intensive crop. It takes more than 700 gallons (2,700 liters) of water and about 5 ounces (142 grams) of pesticides to produce a single cotton T-shirt, according to the World Wildlife Fund. But for many cotton growers, that business model may not be an option going forward. As CASIS officials noted in the statement, cotton cultivation requires access to natural resources that are increasingly imperiled by overexploitation or climate change. 

CASIS will announce the winners of the challenge, which runs from now through Nov. 1, on April 23, 2018 — Earth Day, appropriately enough. Select proposals will receive up to $1 million in grants funded by Target Corp. and will be scheduled for flight to the ISS National Lab, according to the statement.

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Jasmin Malik Chua
Contributing Writer

Jasmin Malik Chua is a fashion journalist whose work has been published in the New York Times, Vox, Nylon, The Daily Beast, The Business of Fashion, Vogue Business and Refinary29, among others. She has a bachelor's degree in animal biology from the National University of Singapore and a master of science in biomedical journalism from New York University.