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SpaceX’s 26th commercial refueling will launch this weekend and will carry a bevy of supplies, a pair of new solar panels, nano tomato seeds and a variety of science experiments to the International Space Station.
The mission will also deliver Thanksgiving-style ice cream and treats to the space station crew, including spicy green beans, apple and blueberry desserts, pumpkin pie, and candy corn.
The Dragon spacecraft was scheduled to lift off Tuesday with its 7,700 pounds (3,493 kilograms) payload from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, but the launch was delayed due to bad weather. Liftoff is now scheduled for Saturday, November 26 at 2:20 PM ET.
The International Space Station Roll Out Solar Arrays, or iROSA, 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 lunar microscope kit. The portable handheld microscope will allow astronauts to collect and send images of blood samples to ground-flight surgeons for diagnostics and treatment.
Nutrients are a key component to maintaining good health in space. But fresh produce is in short supply on the space station compared to the prepackaged meals astronauts eat during their six-month stays in low Earth orbit.
“It’s quite important to our exploration goals at NASA to be able to support the crew not only with nutrition, but also to look at various types of plants as sources of nutrients that we would be driven to sustain on long journeys between distant destinations like Mars.” and so on,” said Kirt Costello, chief scientist at NASA’s International Space Station Program and deputy director of the ISS Research Integration Office.
Astronauts grew and tasted different types of lettuce, radishes and chili peppers on the International Space Station. Now, crew members can add a few dwarf tomatoes, specifically Red Robin tomatoes, to their ingredients list for space-grown salads.
The experiment, known as Pick-and-Eat Salad-Crop Productivity, Nutritional Value, and Acceptability to Supplement the ISS Food System, is part of an effort to provide continuous production of fresh food in space.
The dwarf tomato seeds will be grown under two different light treatments to measure their impact on the number of tomatoes that can be harvested, as well as the nutritional value and taste of the plants. 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 vegetable cushions installed in the vegetable production system, known as the vegetable growth chamber, on the space station. The astronauts will frequently water and feed the plants as they grow, as well as pollinate the flowers.
“Tomatoes will be a new adventure for us on the Veggie team as we figure out how to keep these thirsty plants well watered without overwatering them,” said Gioia Massa, NASA space crop production scientist and principal investigator for the tomato study. .
The tomatoes will be ready for their first taste in the spring.
The crew expects three crops of tomatoes 90, 97 and 104 days after the plants start growing. During the taste tests, the crew will evaluate the flavour, aroma, juiciness and texture of the tomatoes grown using the two different light treatments. Half of every tomato crop will be frozen and brought back to Earth for analysis.
Growing plants on the space station not only provides the opportunity for fresh food and creative taco nights, but it can also improve the mood of the crew during their long spaceflight.
Astronauts will also conduct surveys to monitor their moods as they care for and interact with plants to see how feeding the seedlings improves their experience in the isolation and confinement of the space station.
Hardware is still being developed for more crop production on the space station and eventually other planets, but scientists are already planning which 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 will be a great crop for the moon,” Massa said. “They’re very nutritious, very delicious, and we think astronauts will be really excited to grow them there.”