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After spending a year in total isolation, Christiane Heinicke wanted one thing in particular in August 2016: to eat fresh tomatoes. At the time, the German geophysicist had just completed a year on a simulated Mars mission in Hawaii. For twelve months she had been living with other scientists at the foot of a volcano in a small dome that was under constant camera surveillance, testing out life in a Mars station. There were many things the scientists had to do without during this time – one of them being fresh tomatoes.
How tomatoes can grow in space
Inside the satellite, which is named Eu:CROPIS, the Moon’s gravity will be generated for an initial period of six months and then the gravity of Mars for another half year. The hope is that seeds will germinate during this time and grow into small tomatoes. The whole process will be monitored by 16 cameras. One question that interests the DLR researchers is how the plants will adapt to the reduced gravity. And which direction they will grow. No tomato could grow in space without some little helpers on board the satellite, so microorganisms will also be sent into space in a special biological filter known as a “trickle filter”. They use artificial urine to produce a fertiliser for the tomatoes. A single-celled organism called Euglena will also be on board. This tiny organism protects the closed system from an excessive build-up of ammonia, as well as supplying oxygen. In addition, LED light simulates a day and night rhythm, while a pressure tank creates an atmosphere like on Earth.
Growing vegetables under extreme conditions
A flying model is currently being built and tested at the DLR’s facility in the North German city of Bremen. At the end of 2017, the satellite is then to be sent into space as a piggyback payload on a rocket from a private space company. It would be a minor sensation if the experiment proved a success and tomatoes really could be grown in space. If so, crews would soon be able to grow fresh food for themselves in space. The DLR researchers are even thinking further ahead: they plan to test vegetable-growing under extreme conditions on Earth – for example in the Antarctic. Using artificial light and special nutrient solutions, they will spend a year growing vegetables in a container close to the German research station there. With the help of space research, it is possible that some of the key challenges in the fight against global hunger may be overcome in future.