Tomatoes grown in space will return to Earth this weekend | tech news

Tomatoes in space

Dwarf tomato plants growing on the space station for the Veg-05 survey (Image: Nasa)

Tomatoes grown on the International Space Station (ISS) will return to Earth tomorrow from a successful Nasa study into providing fresh food supplies for future astronauts.

Samples from Nasa plant growth studies are returning from the ISS on April 15 aboard a SpaceX mission for commercial resupply services for the agency.

After the splashdown, the science samples will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where scientists will conduct additional analysis before the effects of gravity fully kick in.

Future crewed exploration missions, such as missions to Mars, may require a supply of fresh food to supplement the crew’s prepackaged meals.

The Veg-05 experiment grew dwarf tomatoes in the station’s veggie facility to study the effects of light quality and fertilizer on fruit production, microbial safety, and nutritional value.

Tomatoes in Space

Nasa astronaut Shane Kimbrough grows lettuce in Veggie on the International Space Station (Image: Nasa)

The Veggie Vegetable Production System on the ISS offers the opportunity to develop a fresh vegetable component for “pick-and-eat” food on the space station.

This particular investigation is designed to help define horticultural best practices to achieve high yields of safe, nutritious dwarf tomato crops to complement a space diet of prepackaged foods.

It was also used to assess possible psychological effects that growing plants might have on the astronauts.

For this study, lettuce crops such as leafy greens and dwarf tomatoes were grown in the Veggie units during spaceflight, with a focus on the effects of light quality and fertilizer formulation on the plants.

A double soil study provided a comparison with crops grown on the ISS to determine the impact of space travel.

Tomatoes in space

Nasa Astronaut Jessica Meir harvests Veg-04 Mizuna Mustard on the International Space Station (Image: Nasa)

Each crop was grown in two separate veggie chambers under two different LED lighting conditions. Six plants were grown using plant “pillows”, which are pouches with a wicking surface containing soilless substrate and fertilizer.

The plants were grown for 104 days where crew members tended to them by opening wicks to help the seedlings emerge, providing water, thinning the seedlings, pollinating and monitoring health and progress

Crew members also completed several questionnaires to record their mood in response to plant growth.

After consuming the tomato fruit, crew members are asked to rate the taste, texture, juiciness, etc. of the produce grown under the different light treatments.

The crew performed three harvests at 90, 97 and 104 days and froze the tomatoes along with water samples and swabs of growth hardware. These are the samples that return to Earth for analysis.

Why grow plants in space?

The ability to grow crops in space for fresh food and improve the overall living experience for crew members is key for future long-term missions.

Plants in space have potential countermeasures. Fresh vegetables offer flavor, sensory and texture variety for the pre-packaged ISS diet.

Tending to the plants also provides astronauts with sensory stimulation and helps track the passage of time in the cramped and isolated environment of the ISS.

The miniature greenhouse used to grow these plants could also be adapted to provide fresh produce for those who do not have access to a garden on earth and for horticultural therapy for the elderly or disabled.

Studies of edible products during spaceflight have been limited, leaving a significant knowledge gap in the methods required to grow safe, acceptable, and nutritious crops for consumption in microgravity.

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Justin Scaccy

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