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IEEE Spectrum

A Software Update Will Instruct Space Tomatoes to Sprout

It’s hard enough to grow tomatoes from seeds out in a sunny garden patch. To do it in sun-synchronous orbit—that is to say, in outer space—would seem that much harder. But is it? 

That’s what plant biologists and aerospace engineers in Cologne and Bremen, Germany are set to find out. Researchers are preparing in the next couple of weeks to send a software upload to a satellite orbiting at 575 kilometers (357 miles) above the Earth. Onboard the satellite are two small greenhouses, each greenhouse bearing six tiny tomato seeds and a gardener’s measure of hope. The upload is going to tell these seeds to go ahead and try to sprout.

The experiment aims to not only grow tomatoes in space but to examine the workings of combined biological life support systems under specific gravitational conditions, namely, those on the moon and on Mars. Eu:CROPIS, which is the name of the satellite as well as the orbital tomato-growing program, is right now spinning at a rate which generates the exact gravitational field found on the moon.

The environment is designed to work as a closed loop: the idea is to employ algae, lava filters, plants, and recycled human urine to create the cycle by which plants absorb nitrates and produce oxygen. Being able to accomplish all these tasks will be crucial to any long-term stay in space, be it on a moon base or a year-long flight to Mars. Any humans along for that kind of ride will be glad to get away from tinned applesauce and surely welcome fresh greens or, say, a tomato.

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