A small satellite that will attempt to grow tomatoes in outer space is one of several to be launched on the SSO-A rideshare mission Wednesday. The satellite, sent as part of the Eu:CROPIS (Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-Food Production in Space) mission organized by American company Spaceflight Industries, will replicate the gravity on both the Moon and Mars over the course of its year-long mission.
“When you’re planning to build up a station on the Moon or Mars, you need some fresh food,” gravitational biologist Dr. Jens Hauslage, the Principal Investigator on the mission, tells Forbes. “[And] you cannot bring tons of food [with you].”
The satellite, which measures just three feet per side, will orbit 370 miles above the Earth, replicating lunar and Martian rotation patterns for six months each. The mission will constitute the longest experiment ever to be conducted in space.
Tomato growth will be monitored via camera, and viable fruits will be identified based on their red color. The plants will be supplied with water, nutrients from bacteria and algae, and artificial urine to break the bacteria down, producing nitrate.
“A lot of things have changed on Earth since it formed 4.5 billion years ago, such as its atmosphere, climate, the amount of light coming from the Sun, and the soil,” reports Forbes. “But one thing that has remained constant is the gravity of our planet – and we don’t have a great understanding of how gravity has affected the evolution of biology throughout the planet's history.”
The mission was originally scheduled to launch on November 19 but was delayed to November 28 at 1:32pm Eastern Time. It will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Other researchers have been delving into alternate means of providing food to astronauts while in space. Michele Perchonok, a food scientist who worked at NASA for 17 years, tells CNET that NASA has been developing viable options for the 34-month round-trip mission to Mars, using techniques including 3D printed food and growth chambers.
"You can anticipate one of the menus could be pasta sauce made with tomatoes, bell peppers and onions," Perchonok says, as it would be “potentially possible” to bring dwarf cherry tomato, potato and strawberry plants to space, reports CNET.
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