A tomato grown aboard the International Space Station (ISS) that went missing eight months ago has finally been located, NASA revealed this week. This peculiar case has astonished both scientists and the public alike.
A Historic First…Then Vanished Into Thin Air
The saga began in November 2021 when NASA astronaut Megan McArthur posted photos of the first tomatoes grown in space from the Veggie botanical research facility aboard the ISS. This marked an exciting milestone, as the ability to cultivate crops in space will be vital for long-term missions.
“First bite of space-grown tomatoes! Makes me think of all the engineers working to make NASA’s #Artemis missions to the Moon sustainable. Then we take another Moonshot and grow plants on Mars!” McArthur tweeted.
However, a few months later in March 2022, astronaut Mark Vande Hei mentioned that one of McArthur’s space tomatoes had gone missing near a lab inside the US Destiny module. Despite searching extensively, the crew could not locate the rogue tomato for months.
Some even joked that astronaut Frank Rubio likely stumbled upon the tomato and devoured it secretly. “Trust me, if I had found it I would have eaten it!” Rubio quipped in NASA’s video this week.
The Case of the Cosmic Tomato Caper is Finally Solved!
Fast forward eight months later, and the mysterious vanished tomato has finally resurfaced! ISS astronaut Koichi Wakata discovered the well-traveled tomato hiding out behind a radiation shield compartment. Much to the team’s shock, the hardy tomato had barely even decomposed or molded after so long adrift in microgravity.
Upon its return, NASA assessed the space tomato’s condition in their plant lab. Amazingly, the resilient tomato had partly dried out as if dehydrated, but still remained largely intact with minimal fungal growth.
“We were all shocked to see it just floating there behind our radiation shielding like it was no big deal,” remarked ISS astronaut Nicole Mann.
The found space tomato, shriveled but mostly intact after 8 months floating aboard the station. (Image credit: NASA)
Space Veggies Must Overcome Harsh Growing Conditions
What makes the incredible survival of this floating tomato so remarkable? Well, the harsh conditions of space pose sobering challenges for farming. With high radiation levels and markedly low gravity, most Earth crops simply cannot grow in space.
This rogue spacetato displayed impressive resilience in coping with such extremes for 8 months. Understanding the science behind this could profoundly impact future space crop production.
“Microbes are less of a concern for space-grown crops due to techniques preventing food-borne illnesses. But radiation can degrade plant health over time, and the lack of gravity disrupts moisture, nutrient flow and root development compared to Earth,” explained NASA plant researcher Trent Smith. “Yet this tomato somehow adapted sufficiently to stay intact for 240 days!”
While shriveled in size, the returned tomato carries invaluable insights for crop breeding approaches better suited to microgravity environments.
Veggie – Pioneering Space Farming
The epic space tomato comes courtesy of NASA’s aptly named “Veggie” system – a reusable botanical growth chamber allowing astronauts to cultivation small vegetable crops onboard the ISS.
The collapsible Veggie units contain red, blue and green LED lamps to nourish plants with the necessary light wavelengths since sunlight is scarce. Plus fertilizer, clay substrate with controlled-release fertilizers and thin Teflon bellows encasing roots while directing water flow in microgravity.
|0.2 cubic meters
|Red (630 nm), blue (455 nm), green (530 nm)
|Lettuces, radishes, cabbage, tomatoes, etc.
Veggie space farming unit specifications
Thanks to Veggie and its successors, future moon and Mars crews need not rely solely on preserved foods from Earth. Instead, missions can “live off the land” using in-situ resource utilization to produce some dietary nutrients, vitamins and minerals themselves.
What’s Next for NASA’s Space Agriculture Pioneers?
While NASA solves the enigma of the amazing space tomato, more voyages lie ahead for Veggie itself. The aging Veggie units require upgrading to better support longer-duration missions.
“We need to get the mass and power of Veggie down to make it more scalable for space travel beyond low Earth orbit where supply deliveries are rarer,” Smith said. “Autonomous operations and increasing crop varieties are also key focal points.”
To that end, NASA plans to launch upgraded plant growth systems like the Advanced Plant Habitat in 2024. This will help gauge new bio-regenerative technologies and processes for sustainable food production missions deeper into space – and maybe even future Martian greenhouses!
As for the seasoned tomato, expect many probing studies analyzing how it survived so splendidly for science. Don’t worry, NASA won’t let a precious source of space nutrition go to waste either – the hardy tomato may yet become part of an astronaut recipe!
So for now, the case of the incredible cosmic tomato has concluded with a happy ending for all involved. Its amazing space journey captured attention worldwide and offered a ripe source of knowledge that may nurture space farming to boldly grow in exciting new directions!
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