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Space tomatoes and yogurt bags: NASA scientists are sending experiments to space that will enable longer future missions

NASA Ames is working on nutrition research that aims to get humans closer to reaching Mars

Space tomatoes, portable diagnostic kits and yogurt bags growing beneficial microorganisms are just a sample of the innovations that will ride aboard SpaceX's 26th commercial resupply mission, which is scheduled to take off for the International Space Station from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday.

NASA scientists from across the country including those based at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View are preparing to launch their experiments into space, conducting research that will support long-duration missions in the future and allow humans to go deeper into space than ever before.

John Hogan, chief of the Bioengineering Branch in the Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames, is the principal investigator for NASA's BioNutrients program, a project that seeks to solve the challenge of supplying sufficient nutrition to astronauts when they're out in space.

Lengthy future missions will require food and medical supplies to have a stable shelf life of up to five years, Hogan said at a NASA press conference held Nov. 9.

"However, studies have shown that the current shelf life of certain vitamins, nutrients and pharmaceuticals is currently too short for these long missions," Hogan said. "So we're developing an on-demand microbial biomanufacturing platform technology that can supply these vital health-related products."

Hogan said the capacity to produce and grow nutrients on-board will have major implications for humans' ability to go to Mars one day. The experiment will test a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage in space. Scientists will also test the production of follistatin, a protein therapeutic used to maintain muscle mass, "which is a serious health concern in reduced gravity conditions," Hogan said.

Along similar lines, NASA Space Crop Production Scientist Dr. Gioia Massa is sending tomato seeds up to the International Space Station to learn more about growing edible plants during space flight.

Using a vegetable production system dubbed Veggie, crew members will become part-time space farmers as scientists back home track the plants' growth, with the goal of diversifying their diet. Simultaneously, the same type of tomatoes will be grown on Earth in conditions that mimic those of the International Space Station in order to "assess the impact of growing between flight and ground on these crops," Massa said.

Massa expects crew members to make three harvests during the 100-day experiment, and they'll be asked to rate the tomatoes for taste. Astronauts will also take surveys "to assess their moods and any psychological benefits that growing plants may have when they're living and working in this extreme environment," Massa added.

The tomatoes will be grown in what are called plant pillows essentially space grow bags filled with ceramic substrate.

"It's porous, so it helps trap water and air into the roots of the plants," Massa said. "That's one of the strangest things about growing plants in space, is really the behavior of water and trying to water your plants."

Due to the lack of gravity, "water sort of sticks to surfaces and crawls," Massa said, "so it can be really challenging."

Scientists will also include a slow release fertilizer so the tomatoes can get nutrients they need over time again promoting the possibility of more self-sufficient space travel in the future.

Also of concern for crew members on longer space expeditions is ensuring they can get medical care and diagnosis if needed. Mayra Nelman-Gonzalez, immunologist in NASA's Johnson Space Center's Immunology and Virology Laboratory, is a co-investigator for testing Moon Microscope technology in space, a portable test kit for in-flight medical diagnosis that will also be aboard the SpaceX resupply mission this Friday.

The Moon Microscope kit includes a portable, handheld microscope and a self-contained blood sample staining device "a portable lab, if you want to think of it that way," Nelman-Gonzalez said.

"This allows an astronaut to collect a blood sample from the finger stick, place a drop of blood on a slide, then smear that blood and stain it and drop the slide into the microscope, focus it really quickly, and then just take a picture," Nelman-Gonzalez said. "It allows that image to then be collected and transmitted back to the ground, where the flight surgeon can use it to diagnose illness and prescribe treatment."

Blood sample images can offer critical information on the size, shape and number of red blood cells, as well as the health of someone's infection-fighting white blood cells and blood-clotting platelets.

"Although we don't have a profound clinical problem on the space station, crew members do experience changes in their immune system," Nelman-Gonzalez said. "When you go through deep space missions, the stressors increase and our ability to care for the crew is reduced, so that combination increases certain clinical risks."

To learn more about what's aboard the SpaceX commercial resupply mission, head to NASA's Commercial Crew Program webpage.

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