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When SpaceX’s 26th commercial resupply mission launches Tuesday, it will carry a bounty of supplies, a pair of new solar arrays, dwarf tomato seeds and a range of science experiments to the International Space Station.
The mission will also deliver ice cream and Thanksgiving-style treats, including spicy green beans, cran-apple desserts, pumpkin pie and candy corn, to the space station crew.
The Dragon spacecraft is expected to lift off with its 7,700 pounds (3,493 kilograms) of cargo from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:54 p.m. ET, with live coverage available on NASA’s website beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.
The International Space Station Roll Out Solar Arrays, or iROSAs, will be installed outside the floating laboratory during spacewalks scheduled for November 29 and December 3. The solar arrays will give the space station a power boost.
The cargo includes a number of health-related items, such as the Moon Microscope kit. The portable handheld microscope will allow astronauts to collect and send images of blood samples to flight surgeons on the ground for diagnostics and treatment.
Nutrients are a key component of maintaining good health in space. But fresh produce is in short supply on the space station compared with the prepackaged meals astronauts eat during their six-month stays in low-Earth orbit.
“It is fairly important to our exploration goals at NASA to be able to sustain the crew with not only nutrition but also to look at various types of plants as sources for nutrients that we would be hard pressed to sustain on the long trips between distant destinations like Mars and so forth,” said Kirt Costello, chief scientist at NASA’s International Space Station Program and a deputy manager of the ISS Research Integration Office.
Astronauts have grown and tasted different types of lettuce, radishes and chiles on the International Space Station. Now, the crew members can add some dwarf tomatoes — specifically, Red Robin tomatoes — to their list of space-grown salad ingredients.
The experiment, known as the Pick-and-Eat Salad-Crop Productivity, Nutritional Value, and Acceptability to Supplement the ISS Food System, is part of an effort to provide continuous fresh food production in space.
The dwarf tomato seeds will be grown under two different light treatments to measure their impact on how many tomatoes can be harvested, as well as the plants’ nutritional value and taste. Red Robin tomatoes will also be grown on Earth as a control experiment. The two crops will be compared to measure the effects of the zero gravity environment on tomato growth.
The space tomatoes will be grown inside small bags called plant pillows installed in the Vegetable Production System, known as the Veggie growth chamber, on the space station. The astronauts will frequently water and nurture the plants as they grow, as well as pollinate the flowers.
“Tomatoes will be a new adventure for us on the Veggie team, trying to figure out how to keep these thirsty plants well watered without over watering,” said Gioia Massa, NASA’s space crop production scientist and principal investigator for the tomato study.
The tomatoes will be ready for their first taste test in the spring.
The crew is expecting three tomato harvests 90, 97 and 104 days after the plants begin to grow. During taste tests, the crew will rate the flavor, aroma, juiciness and texture of the tomatoes grown using the two different light treatments. Half of each tomato harvest will be frozen and returned to Earth for analysis.
Growing plants on the space station not only provides the opportunity for fresh food and creative taco nights, it can also boost the mood of the crew during their long spaceflight.
The astronauts will also take surveys to track their moods as they care for and interact with the plants to see how nurturing the seedlings enhances their experience amid the isolation and confinement of the space station.
The hardware is still in development for larger crop production on the space station and eventually other planets, but scientists are already planning what plants might grow best on the moon and Mars. Earlier this year, a team successfully grew plants in lunar soil that included samples collected during the Apollo missions.
“Tomatoes are going to be a great crop for the moon,” Massa said. “They’re very nutritious, very delicious and we think the astronauts will be really excited to grow them there.”