Tomatosphere: Sowing the seeds of discovery through student science

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Home base on the moon. Boot prints on Mars. Visits to asteroids. With the world's space-faring nations looking beyond the International Space Station (ISS) to envision human missions to increasingly distant destinations, scientists have already begun to tackle the many challenges of sending humans farther and farther from our home planet. Missions to the ISS have made substantial contributions to our knowledge of how the human body adapts to microgravity for three, six or even 12 months, but taking steps further out into the solar system will require much longer expeditions. A human mission to Mars, for instance, will likely mean a six-month journey each way, coupled with a stay of about 18 months on the surface of the planet!

Future crews on long-duration missions will need to be self-sufficient to stay safe and healthy. Since carrying two to three years' worth of food would be expensive and impractical, astronauts will have to grow their own food en route to their destination. Space farming may sound futuristic, but in the closed environment of a spacecraft, plants could make a huge contribution to life-support systems. Not only do plants provide food, water and oxygen, they also recycle carbon dioxide and waste. But how do you grow plants effectively in the radiation-filled environment of space? Which plants are best suited for space missions? What type of seeds would be able to withstand the journey and still germinate? What if we could recruit the next generation of astronauts, scientists and engineers to help solve the problem?

The next batch of Tomatosphere seeds in space!

NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly poses with 600,000 tomato seeds

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Astronaut Scott Kelly poses with 600,000 tomato seeds for the Tomatosphere educational project. These space-faring seeds will be distributed to about 18,000 classes in Canada and the US during the 2015-16 school year. The seeds were launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on board SpaceX's Dragon on April 14, and will return to Earth on May 21. (Credit: NASA)

Students during a Tomatosphere™ experiment

Grade 3 students measuring their tomato plants as part of the Tomatosphere experiment. (Credit: Tomatosphere)

Since 2001, the award-winning Tomatosphere educational project has done just that. An estimated 3 million students in Canada and the United States have helped researchers gather data to address these questions, while learning about science, space exploration, agriculture and nutrition. Tomatosphere provides students with two sets of tomato seeds: one set that has been exposed to space or space-simulated environments as well as a control group for comparison. Without knowing which set is which, students grow the seedlings in their classrooms, measuring a variety of information about the tomato plants, the germination rates, growth patterns and vigour of the seeds. This methodology, known as a "blind study," allows the mystery of the project to be real science for the students. Each class submits their results to the project's website to be shared with scientists studying horticulture and environmental biology.

The project's baseline experiment investigates the germination rate of the seeds; however, supporting materials have been developed to allow educators from grades 3 to 10 to build on student understanding of a variety of topics, from the science of plants to the science of nutrition to the science of ecosystems.

Tomatosphere's hands-on approach to learning gives students a taste for science and space research. In addition to being rewarded with their very own "space tomatoes" to bring home, the students participating in Tomatosphere today know that they have each made a personal contribution to assisting space exploration in the future. And perhaps one day, an astronaut biting into a fresh, juicy tomato on the surface of the Red Planet will thank them.

Tomatosphere is sponsored by the Heinz Canada, HeinzSeed, Stokes Seeds, the University of Guelph, Let's Talk Science, First the Seed Foundation and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Follow the journey of the tomato seeds: from Earth to space, then back to Earth!

Illustration of the tomato seeds journey. Description follows.
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Take a bite out of the science with Tomatosphere !

  1. 600 000 tomato seeds are prepared to be sent to space.
  2. The seeds travel to space in the belly of a dragon—SpaceX's Dragon space ship, which transports the seeds to the International Space Station.
  3. The tomato seeds spend 5 weeks in space, orbiting the planet about 550 times.
  4. Back on Earth, the seeds are sent to 18 000 classrooms across Canada and the United States. Students then grow the space seeds and compare them with regular seeds. They will only find out which seeds went to space when they complete the experiment.

Why grow tomatoes in space?

Future crews on long space missions will not be able to take all their food with them—they will need to grow plants, which will add oxygen and water and remove carbon dioxide from the environment. Why tomatoes? They are easy to grow, versatile, nutritious and tasty and make a great space salsa!

  • *Over 17 800 classes took part in Tomatosphere in 2014.
  • *Since it began in 2001, Tomatosphere has reached over 3 million students across Canada and the United States.

(Credit: Canadian Space Agency)