Apart from installing two roll-out solar arrays to the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts on board are also installing the Veg-05 science experiment, which will attempt to grow dwarf tomatoes in space.
A healthy, nutritious diet is essential to long-term space exploration missions, which is why NASA hopes to supplement pre-packaged food with fresh foods that are grown in space. Towards that end, NASA has already conducted the Veg-04 test, which was a science experiment where astronauts grew mizuna mustard, a green leafy crop, on the space station.
On November 27, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spaceship carried the Veg-05 experiment to ISS, which will build on the work done by previous experiments to grow dwarf tomatoes in space. For the experiment, “Red Robin” dwarf tomatoes will be grown on ISS under two different lighting conditions and their impact on crop growth will be analysed in terms of the differences in fruit yield, nutritional composition and microbial levels.
In parallel with the experiments in space, a similar scientific setup on Earth will help scientists contrast the effects of spaceflight on crop growth. After the tomatoes are grown, astronauts aboard ISS will eat them and rate them for flavour, juiciness and other quantities. ISS crew members will also take surveys that will help scientists evaluate their moods to assess any psychological benefits of interacting with plants in the space station’s environment.
The two different light treatments of the crop will have different red-to-blue light ratios during the investigation designed to help define light colours, levels and other agricultural best practices that can help astronauts achieve high yields of safe, nutritious leafy greens and tomatoes.
The crops are grown in “plant pillows,” which are bags with a wicking surface containing fertiliser and a soilless substrate. The tomatoes will take about 104 does to grow and crew members will have to tend to the plants in the meanwhile. They will also routinely inspect the plants and send images to teams on the ground.
Apart from the flavour and texture benefits offered by the fresh vegetables, taking care of the plants will also provide sensory stimulation while helping astronauts track the passage of time in the cramped quarters of ISS, according to NASA.