April 6, 2017
International Space Station (ISS). Image Credit: NASA
Stewed, canned or on the vine, there are lots of ways to buy tomatoes– but have you ever seen “flown in space” on a supermarket sticker? Tomato seeds have been making trips to the International Space Station for the past 16 years, and it’s about time to ketchup with the people involved in the project.
The Tomatosphere project has given millions of children the chance to participate in real-life science in space, helping organizations like NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), Let’s Talk Science and the First the Seed Foundation prepare for deep-space missions while also cultivating a love for science in the minds of young students.
“Inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers is a core mission for CASIS as managers of the ISS U.S. National Laboratory,” said Patrick O’Neill, marketing and communications manager at CASIS. “Tomatosphere is a fun, interactive, classroom-based learning experience that allows students to better understand seed exposure and plant biology research in microgravity.”
Image above: European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet is seen holding two bags of tomato seeds as part of the latest Tomatosphere session. Image Credit: NASA.
The most recent batch of tomato seeds was launched on SpaceX’s ninth commercial resupply for NASA to the International Space Station last year. Seeds remained aboard the space station for 37 days, then caught a ride back to Earth on the returning SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft before being distributed to more than 20,000 classrooms across the United States and Canada.
Teachers receive a mixture of space-flown and Earth-based seeds to be planted and grown by students. Each plant’s growth is monitored and recorded, showcasing microgravity’s effects on seed germination. Students submit their results to the Tomatosphere database to be compared against other student’s collected data.
During this blind study, the students observe the germination rate and growth of the plant, taking note of the many possible differences between the two kinds of seeds.
Image above: Students from all across the United States and Canada have the chance to become real-life NASA lab assistants as they monitor the germination of space-flown tomatoes in order to isolate the effects microgravity may have on seed germination. This information will become increasingly important as NASA continues to plan for longer-duration spaceflights where frequent resupply missions won’t be possible. Image Credits: First the Seed Foundation.
“They’re noting the germination, when it starts to grow, the differences in sizes of the plants, how fast they grow, how big their leaves are, the color of their leaves, visual differences, basically,” said Ann Jorss, secretary and treasurer for First the Seed Foundation. “The goal has always been to give students an understanding about where their food comes from and get them excited about agriculture.”
Information gathered from the investigation not only teaches children about careers in STEM and agriculture, but aids in the development of biological life-supporting technologies aboard a spacecraft, a key factor in planning future deep-space missions.
“We don’t want to leave planet Earth without green plants,” said Mike Dixon, primary investigator for Tomatosphere-US and director of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. “The edible biomass plants provide will play a factor in determining how far from Earth we can go and how long we can stay.”
Image above: Students record data as the tomato plants grow, noting potential differences in size, color, texture and growth rates. After the completion of the project, the data is submitted to the Tomatosphere database, to be used by NASA researchers. Image Credits: First the Seed Foundation.
Dixon and co-founder and retired CSA astronaut Bob Thirsk were interested in more than just the scientific results, though.
“The lure of space exploration is such a powerful magnet for young minds,” said Dixon.
Tomatosphere was founded as an outreach investigation, aimed at attracting and retaining elementary students into the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, but later expanded to include secondary and college students as well. With CASIS involvement, the future of Tomatosphere will hold even more advanced scientific curriculum.
Food for thought: Let’s talk Tomatosphere™ with astronaut Thomas Pesquet
After the completion of the project, students are encouraged to harvest their tomatoes to be eaten at home, made into a salsa or donated to local food banks.
Teachers in the United States and Canada can register online to participate in the program. Follow @ISS_Research for more information about the science happening aboard the space station.
Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS): http://www.iss-casis.org/
Canada register online: https://www.firsttheseedfoundation.org/tomatosphere
Canadian Space Agency (ASC-CSA): http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/default.asp
Space Station Research and Technology: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/index.html
International Space Station (ISS): https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html
Images (mentioned), Video, Text, Credits: NASA/JSC/Jenny Howard/ASC-CSA.