June 2023 Newsletter

June 2023 Newsletter

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Unleashing the Potential:
How Space-Flown Tomato Seeds Reveal Clues to Sustainable Crop Growth after Long Duration Space Travel

By Exolith Lab

In April of 1984, the space shuttle Challenger placed the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) in low-Earth orbit to provide long-term experimental data on the surrounding environment and its effects on space systems, materials, operations, and selected spores' survival.

Originally anticipated to run for one year, LDEF ultimately spent a total of 5.7 in orbit and hosted 57 individual scientific experiments prior to its retrieval by the space shuttle Columbia in January 1990. During this time, a whopping 12.5 million Rutgers California Supreme tomato seeds were flown.

Upon their arrival back on Earth, students around the globe raced to grow these “space tomatoes” alongside their Earth-bound counterparts to better understand the effects spaceflight would have on seedling germination.

Now, with humanity looking to return to the moon and travel beyond, understanding how space flight may affect seedling growth and behavior is a vital component to the future of long-duration space flight. Through the American Public University System (APUS)’s Analog Research Group (AARG) Tyler Hines is doing just that.

A non-botanist by trade, Hines has held many roles during his time with AARG, including mission operations, planning, and crew training, with a more recent stint as the GreenHab Officer for the ARG-1M mission, the university’s first analog mission to the Mars Desert Research Station. More recently, he has been testing out his green thumb with the very same seeds that were flown on LDEF. His research focused on conducting short-term germination studies of both nutrient-dense microgreens and the space-exposed tomato seeds utilizing Exolith Lab’s MGS-1 Martian regolith simulant. For his study, Hines used a combination of regolith simulant, ⅓ organic material, and small amounts of terrestrial soil alongside a nutrient-dense liquid plant diet in attempts to germinate any of the roughly 360 space-flown seeds used for this experiment. 

“I was hoping at least one (would sprout) by maybe the last couple of days of the mission and then keeping that thing alive as much as I could.” Hines states.

His first germination (nicknamed “Genesis”) was observed on Sol 6 during the first half, where it sustained continual growth until the mission end. Sprouting microgreen seedlings were also observed to rapidly germinate within the initial 72 hours and continued flourishing for remainder of mission.

Out of the hundreds of 39-year-old tomato seeds observed Hines was able to successfully germinate five and compare their growth to that of kale, broccoli, and microgreens grown in similar conditions.

“All of the simulated regolith was a key factor in this (study),” Hines says, “(We were) seeing if these space-exposed seeds could work at all in this type of situation but also how well microgreens can flourish in the same type of material.” 

This research is a pivotal step to the future of long-duration space flight, as it provides insights into how we can better grow crops in space and sustain human life during extended missions and the complexities that come with possible radiation exposure.

By understanding how plants such as tomatoes behave after flight and in harsh, nutrient-lacking regolith, we can better prepare for future space missions and ensure that we have the resources necessary to sustain life beyond Earth.

Want to learn more about Tyler’s research and the ARG-1M Mission? Click here!