NASA launches cosmic tomato experiments on the ISS

Future Mars astronauts could snack on NASA’s space-grown tomatoes

Since Thursday, flight engineer Nicole Mann has been installing the “Veg-05” study on the International Space Station, NASA said in a blog post. What is Veg-05, you ask?

Well, here’s the long and convoluted name of the Veg-05 study: the nutritional value of harvested and eaten salad crop productivity and acceptability to complete the ISS food system survey.

Although at the risk of oversimplifying, I would call it the agency’s attempt to grow space tomatoes.

Basically, the goal is to grow dwarf tomato plants (essentially cherry tomatoes) under two different light quality treatments in space and in a parallel ground study. On Nov. 26, the mission’s precious tomato seeds were successfully sent to the ISS via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Once some tomatoes have sprouted, the team will analyze differences in fruit yield, nutritional composition and microbial levels, or the amount of bacteria present.

To be clear, this analysis will be conducted with both scientific tools and personal surveys.

Yes, the study team members literally plan to eat the tomatoes and assess the flavor, texture, juiciness, and other things we would normally consider when buying made marinara ingredients. home.

I wonder if these space tomatoes, officially dubbed the Red Robin variety, will be more like a plump, on-the-vine situation better suited to bruschetta, or closer to those firm tomatoes ideal for long-simmered sauces and fresh salads. .

Or maybe we can get both textures? Neither? That’s why we need a tomato cosmic study.

Tiny tomatoes are seen in blue-violet light growing in a science craft.

An overhead view of dwarf ‘Red Robin’ tomatoes growing in Veggie material at the Kennedy Space Center on the ground.

Mass of joy

But why do we need space salad?

In short, it looks like NASA is gearing up for a promising future of extra-long deep-space, Martian, and lunar astronaut expeditions.

I mean, Artemis I already technically paving the way for moon bases, habitats and internet connectivity, which will eventually set the stage for the agency’s dream of taking humans to Mars. We even have a prototype “holocarrier” medicine concept being developed for the benefit of deep space exploration, thanks to Microsoft’s HoloLens.

And the thing is, fresh food will eventually more nutritious – and delicious – for anyone who ventures into the distant embrace of the universe. It is also quite difficult to bring terrestrial food to astronauts with resupply missions, a complex and expensive option that would not be possible at all for those who leave one day for long duration trips.

“The packed diet currently used by crews in low Earth orbit works well and has supported an uninterrupted human presence in space since November 2, 2000,” NASA wrote in an overview of the study. “However, it relies on frequent resupply missions. During a two or three year mission to Mars, the vitamins and quality of packaged foods would degrade over time. Supplementation with fresh, edible cultures will provide the necessary nutrients while improving dietary variety.”

“Anecdotal evidence,” the agency continues, “also supports the potential for psychological benefits for astronauts, rooted in the enjoyment of eating and caring for plants.”

With these reasons in mind, there’s actually a whole investigation into how to grow natural crops on the ISS. Veg-05 is just one piece of the puzzle.

An astronaut wears a casual blue shirt and floats past lettuce growing in the ISS Veggie craft.  The lettuce is dipped in a bright pink light.

NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough grows lettuce in the craft, named Veggie, on the International Space Station.


The power of the tomato

NASA’s latest tomato queries arose from the Veg-04 study, which dealt with the production of mizuna mustard greens. Veg-04 followed Veg-03, which made prototype cabbage, kale, romaine, and lettuce; and Veg-03 came after Veg-01, which was the first Roman exploration. Veg-02, if you were wondering, also focused on romaine — yeah, space romaine should outpace ground romaine at this rate — but this time the leaves weren’t for consumption human.

Altogether, NASA’s space salad effort is called “Veggie,” which succinctly stands for The Vegetable Production System. It’s the name of the Plant Growth Unit on the ISS, where all the magic happens.

Additionally, Veggie Studies transcends the “Veg” subcategories. For example, a few years ago, a few inedible experiments produced lentils, radishes, and even seaweed. Last year, the space station crew also gobbled down space tacos, as the astronauts managed to harvest hot green pepper. (These tacos, however, were not officially part of Veggie).


A taco on the ISS made with Hatch peppers.

NASA/Megan McArthur

Ultimately, space crops may, fascinatingly, turn out to surpass the nutritional value of terrestrial crops as well. Earlier this year, as an example, scientists presented their plan for what is called transgenic lettuce, which can be cultivated in space.

This special type of lettuce is similar to its normal counterpart, except it is genetically modified to prevent bone loss, a medical complication that affects people in weightlessness. Normally, astronauts have to inject themselves with substances that help alleviate the problem, but wouldn’t it be better to eat a salad that prevents bone loss? Maybe one day there will be a way to modify all of Veggie’s fresh ingredients in the same way.

Who knew salad could be so powerful?

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