Space tomatoes harvested by UAE astronaut heading back to Earth to boost research

Sultan Al Neyadi's work in space aims to support future missions and life back on Earth

Sultan Al Neyadi with tomatoes he harvested in space. Photo: Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre
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Tomatoes harvested in space by Emirati astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi to boost future missions are on a return trip to Earth this weekend.

The dwarf vegetables were grown in December on board the International Space Station's miniature green house.

Dr Al Neyadi has played a key role in the project since his arrival on the ISS in March.

It is an important part of achieving Nasa's ambitions to provide fresh food to sustain astronauts, particularly on long-duration journeys.

The stellar crops will be among various science experiments to be carried back home by the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft, currently docked at the station, on Saturday, at 7.05pm UAE time.

Dr Al Neyadi, 41, will be on duty that day to help complete the loading of critical research samples and used station hardware onto the Dragon spacecraft.

“Al Neyadi will then activate Dragon monitoring tools and software and close the vehicle’s hatch before the US cargo craft undocks on Saturday,” Nasa said.

“Dragon will parachute to a splashdown off the coast of Florida a few hours later for retrieval by SpaceX and Nasa personnel.

“The completed research and discarded lab gear will then be sent to scientists and engineers around the world for analysis.”

Dr Al Neyadi has been conducting crucial scientific work since arriving to the orbiting laboratory on March 3 for a six-month mission.

Aiding research in space and on Earth

Nasa said the tomato samples grown in space may not only help future missions but could also improve access to fresh food on Earth.

“They froze tomatoes, water samples and swabs of the growth hardware to examine the effects of light quality and fertiliser on fruit production, microbial safety and nutritional value,” Nasa said of the experiments.

“The ability to grow plants in space for fresh food and an improved crew living experience is important for future long-duration missions.”

“The hardware could be adapted for use on Earth to provide fresh produce for those without access to gardens and as horticultural therapy for older people and people with disabilities.”

Astronauts have been growing fruits and vegetables in space for many years. This is vital to meeting the goal of establishing a base on the Moon or other planets, and also helps to reduce their dependence on resupply missions sent from Earth.

In August 2015, red romaine lettuce became the first vegetable to be grown in space, proving to be a tastier alternative to the packaged space food astronauts have to eat.

Fire safety research

Another experiment involving fire safety in space that Dr Al Neyadi participated in is also being sent to scientists on ground for analysis.

The research included how fuel temperature affects material flammability.

Dr Al Neyadi tested some materials and the gel samples are being returned to Earth.

“The investigation could improve safety of crew members on future missions by increasing understanding of early fire growth behaviour, informing selection of fire-resistant spacecraft cabin materials, validating flammability models and helping to determine optimal fire suppression techniques,” Nasa said.

Spacewalk preparations

Once the samples have left the station, the next big task on the ISS is a spacewalk by two Russian cosmonauts.

Commander Sergey Prokopyev and flight engineer Dmitri Petelin will exit the station’s Poisk airlock in their Russian Orlan spacesuits.

They will then turn to the Earth-facing side of the station to start the work of moving a radiator and an experiment module.

The next spacewalk, on April 28, will include Dr Al Neyadi and Nasa astronaut Stephen Bowen, who will venture outside for six-and-a-half hours to retrieve communication hardware.

Sultan Al Neyadi in space — in pictures

Updated: April 14, 2023, 1:37 PM