NASA Grows Space Rose: Valentine's Day in Orbit

First Posted: Feb 13, 2013 11:34 AM EST

Just in time for Valentine's Day, NASA has grown a space rose. Scientists wanted to test whether or not a rose grown in space would smell as sweet as its counterpart on Earth.

In 1998, International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) teamed up with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR), a NASA Commercial Space Center at the University of Wisconsin. There, researchers developed a plant growing chamber called ASTROCULTURE for the middeck of the space shuttle. It helped provide plants with the appropriate temperature, humidity, light and nutrients in space.

Then it was time to develop the actual rose. The miniature rose, called "Overnight Scentsation", was cultivated by IFF researcher Braja Mookherjee for experiments in space.

The rose blasted off in 1998 for a 10-day flight onboard the shuttle Discovery. It turned out, surprisingly, that while a rose does smell in space, it does not smell the same. Fragrance in flowers comes from "volatile oils," also known as essential oils. These concentrated plant extracts readily bind to receptors in the olfactory neurons and are soluble in alcohol, but not water. Often, they feel oily to the touch and evaporate at room temperature.

The production of these oils, however, is strongly affected by the plant's environment, which means that space certainly affected the miniature rose. It produced fewer volatile oils than on Earth, and the fragrance that it did generate was altered. Instead of a "green, fresh rosy note," the smell changed to a "floral rose aroma."

In order to scientifically check their findings, astronauts touched the rose using a tiny silicon fiber that was coated with a special liquid to which molecules around the flower petal adhere. After returning to Earth, researchers analyzed the molecules collected on the fiber. They were then able to synthesize the fragrance in the lab and compare it to the one on Earth.

IFF has now commercialized the new fragrance, called Zen, which means you can now buy the perfume with the scent of "space rose." 

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