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Food in Space – The Tomatosphere Programme

In this article, Harry Evett and Daniel Forrest from St Mary’s Catholic School in Bishop’s Stortford take a look at how we’re heading towards growing food in Space – a vital step towards living in space.

Space – we find it fascinating yet we still know so little.  Man has dreamt of putting people in space and we have succeeded.  Our next dream is to make it possible for people to live in space.  To do this they must have a sustainable food supply and the only way to maintain a food supply in space is to farm there.  This may sound simple but there are a number of challenges which scientists have to overcome in order to successfully grow plants in space.

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The Tomatosphere Programme

The tomatosphere program addresses the challenge of growing food in space by involving schools to help investigate the problem.  To do this, each participating class is sent two packages of tomato seeds, one of these packages is the control, the other is full of seeds which have been exposed to space or space simulated conditions.  The students aren’t told which bag is which.  The students monitor and compare the seeds’ growth – more specifically their germination and their early development.  Students then gather data over a period of three months – the time required to produce a ripe tomato.  They then pass their data to their teachers who will submit it to the tomatosphere for comparison with other growers and for a full evaluation.  Although this is currently just in USA and Canada, this scheme is being replicated by the Rocket Seeds program here in the UK.

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The Story of the Space Tomato

Tomatoes are extremely versatile and nutritious with some essential vitamins including lycopene, an ingredient which may help prevent some cancers and other diseases.  They are relatively easy to grow, take up little space, and the seeds used in the experiment have not been altered in any way.  The tomatoes do however have to be carefully monitored in order to ensure that they are safe to eat.  In space the seeds are exposed to violent ionizing radiation.  In space they could help to decrease the effect of the radiation by surrounding the plants with water vapor which would weaken the radiation and at the same time provide moisture for the tomatoes.  One may ask “Why not surround the tomato with lead?  That would stop the radiation.”  There are two problems with this – one is that lead is highly toxic and would contaminate the tomato, the other is that this would prevent the tomatoes getting enough light.

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