If astronauts are to undertake multi-year missions or establish a lasting presence on the Moon and Mars, they will need fresh food and medical supplies, not exactly easy to find off-planet. The latest shipment of supplies bound for the ISS includes a few new options, including yoghurt production and potentially delicious space tomatoes.
The tomatoes (seen above) are just the latest phase of a long experiment on the space station in growing edible plants in microgravity and artificial light. But while the past few years of work have focused on leafy greens like spinach and herbs, Veg-05 will examine how a juicy payload like a dwarf tomato grows in this unusual garden environment.
The mission will examine “light and fertilizer quality on fruit production, microbial food safety, nutritional value, crew acceptability of taste, and overall behavioral health benefits of having plants and fresh food in space”. Getting the light and nutrient flow parameters, so they provide different combinations of conditions, including different combinations of LED light, is essential to see which produces the best tomatoes during the growing period of 104 days.
Like terrestrial gardening, it is quite a demanding experience for the ISS crew. “Crew members tend to plants by opening wicks to help seedlings emerge, providing water, thinning seedlings, pollinating, and monitoring health and progress,” the description reads. . In the end, of course, they’ll eat at least a few, which will likely be a bittersweet moment after raising the plants from germination.
Nor will it be the only garden on the ISS. The October resupply mission brought up Plant Habitat-03, an experiment investigating epigenetic effects on plants in microgravity. Environmental changes can produce changes in how and which genes are expressed, and of course living in orbit is a substantial environmental change.
We know that these changes occur in space, but we don’t know if the changes are heritable, or if certain strains or mutations will produce more space-friendly plant variants after these epigenetic changes. This study takes seeds produced in space and compares plants growing from them with seeds produced on the surface. With luck, we might find special adaptations to microgravity that allow plants to thrive in this unusual condition.
Some vitamins and minerals are also best fresh. And an interesting approach to making them on demand is to use beneficial microbes like those found in yogurt-like foods. BioNutrients-2 is the second phase of an attempt to create a shelf-stable pre-yogurt mix that, when hydrated, allows bacteria to naturally produce a target nutrient.
The experiment flying to the ISS today has three potential hosts: “yogurt, a different fermented dairy product called kefir, and a yeast drink. Each of these is designed to deliver specific nutritional products .
Bacteria and yeasts are frequently modified for various purposes; one trend is bioreactors, where organisms produce a given molecule as part of their normal biological processes – a sugar like glucose, for example, but also more complex molecules like drugs. But whether and how to do it efficiently and easily in space, for human consumption, is an open question that this experiment aims to shed some light on.
That nice blue color will fade though – it’s a pH indicator and eventually the stuff takes on the color of yogurt.
In addition to food and culture, there are a variety of interesting medical experiments going on up there from these last resupply missions. Microgravity produces many interesting and sometimes deleterious effects on the human body, and not only that, but it affects possible treatments and their effectiveness. What if a given drug only works by gravity for some reason? You’d hate to find that halfway through Mars.
So we have a new biofabrication test, to see if human tissue can be efficiently (perhaps more efficiently!) grown and printed in microgravity; a “lunar microscope” intended for rapid and simple diagnosis in non-terrestrial conditions; “Falcon Goggles” which captures detailed images of the user’s eyes to see how microgravity can affect their functioning and adaptation; and a handful of other projects from various research institutes looking at how various in-orbit treatments or devices work.
You can watch the launch live here after around 1 p.m. PT.