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Don’t play with your food

What do astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) do when they get bored? Have fun with food, of course!

The microgravity environment of orbit is the perfect place to perform tricks and experiments using anything that comes to hand, including what you’re about to eat. Here’s a light-hearted look some ISS astronauts and cosmonauts having a bit of fun. All images courtesy of NASA.

Astronaut Naoko Yamazaki squeezes a water bubble aboard the ISS

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Naoko Yamazaki squeezes a water bubble out of her beverage container, showing her image refracted, on the middeck of space shuttle Discovery while docked with the ISS. (April 2010)

Cosmonaut Oleg V. Kotov, Expedition 15 flight engineer from Russia's Federal Space Agency, with fresh fruit

Cosmonaut Oleg V. Kotov, Expedition 15 flight engineer from Russia's Federal Space Agency, with fresh fruit brought up via a Progress re-supply craft. Gives a whole new meaning to the term "food pyramid"! (May 2007)

JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 20 flight engineer with two food containers. (June 2009)

JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata, Expedition 20 flight engineer, holds chopsticks near food containers. (June 2009)

NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, Expedition 22 flight engineer, pictured in the galley in the Unity node of the International Space Station. (Jan 2010)

NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer, Expedition 22 flight engineer, pictured in the galley in the Unity node of the International Space Station. (Jan 2010)

Now that's just showing off. Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Expedition 23 commander levitates fruit. Don't try this at home. (May 2010)

Now that's just showing off. Oleg Kotov levitates fruit. Don't try this at home. (May 2010)

Yum! Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, Expedition 23 commander; and NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, flight engineer, open a delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables. (May 2010)

Yum! Oleg Kotov and NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, flight engineer, open a delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables. (May 2010)

Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov gets in on the act too. (May 2010)

Russian cosmonaut Alexander Skvortsov gets in on the act too. (May 2010)

Koichi Wakata watches a water bubble float freely, showing his image refracted. (June 2009)

Koichi Wakata watches a water bubble float freely, showing his image refracted. (June 2009)

Blowing water bubbles is thirsty work! (June 2009)

Blowing water bubbles is thirsty work! (June 2009)

Astronaut Sandra Magnus and cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov, both Expedition 18 flight engineers, work with food storage containers in the Zvezda Service Module of the ISS. (Feb 2009)

Astronaut Sandra Magnus and cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov, both Expedition 18 flight engineers, work with food storage containers in the Zvezda Service Module of the ISS. (Feb 2009)

A spoon-sized item of food floats freely in front of cosmonaut Fyodor N. Yurchikhin, Expedition 15 commander from Russia's Federal Space Agency. (May 2007)

A spoon-sized item of food floats freely in front of cosmonaut Fyodor N. Yurchikhin, Expedition 15 commander from Russia's Federal Space Agency. (May 2007)

Koichi Wakata tries to decide what to have for dinner. (April 2009)

Koichi Wakata tries to decide what to have for dinner. (April 2009)

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Space food: Try a strawberry

Purdue University's Gioia Massa, Cary Mitchell and Judith Santini found that a particular type of strawberry seems to meet NASA guidelines for foods that could be grown in space.

Purdue University's Gioia Massa, Cary Mitchell and Judith Santini found that a particular type of strawberry seems to meet NASA guidelines for foods that could be grown in space.

  • Strawberries tested for growing in space
  • Performed well in the laboratory
  • Could be used in “salad machines”

Astronauts could one day tend their own crops on long space missions, and Purdue University researchers have found a healthy candidate to help satisfy a sweet tooth—a strawberry that requires little maintenance and energy.

Cary Mitchell, professor of horticulture, and Gioia Massa, a horticulture research scientist, tested several cultivars of strawberries and found one variety, named Seascape, which seems to meet the requirements for becoming a space crop.

“What we’re trying to do is grow our plants and minimise all of our inputs,” Massa said. “We can grow these strawberries under shorter photoperiods than we thought and still get pretty much the same amount of yield.”

Cosmonaut Oleg V. Kotov pictured near "fresh" fruit floating freely in the International Space Station

Cosmonaut Oleg V. Kotov pictured near "fresh" fruit floating freely in the International Space Station. The fruit had been brought up on a supply mission.

Seascape strawberries are day-neutral, meaning they aren’t sensitive to the length of available daylight to flower. Seascape was tested with as much as 20 hours of daylight and as little as 10 hours. While there were fewer strawberries with less light, each berry was larger and the volume of the yields was statistically the same.

“I was astounded that even with a day-neutral cultivar we were able to get basically the same amount of fruit with half the light,” Mitchell said.

The perfect fruit for space missions

The findings, which were reported online early in the journal Advances in Space Research, showed that the Seascape strawberry cultivar is a good candidate for a space crop because it meets several guidelines set by NASA.

Strawberry plants are relatively small, meeting mass and volume restrictions. Since Seascape provides fewer, but larger, berries under short days, there is less labour required of crewmembers who would have to pollinate and harvest the plants by hand. Needing less light cuts down energy requirements not only for lamps, but also for systems that would have to remove heat created by those lights.

“We’re trying to think of the whole system—growing food, preparing it and getting rid of the waste,” Massa said. “Strawberries are easy to prepare and there’s little waste.”

Astronaut Sandra Magnus poses with food that she prepared at the galley in the International Space Station.

Astronaut Sandra Magnus poses with food that she prepared at the galley in the International Space Station.

Seascape also had less cycling, meaning it steadily supplied fruit throughout the test period. Massa said the plants kept producing fruit for about six months after starting to flower.

Space-based “salad machines”

Mitchell said the earliest space crops will likely be part of a “salad machine,” a small growth unit that will provide fresh produce that can supplement traditional space meals. Crops being considered include lettuces, radishes and tomatoes. Strawberries may be the only sweet fruit being considered, he said.

“The idea is to supplement the human diet with something people can look forward to,” Mitchell said. “Fresh berries can certainly do that.”

Judith Santini, a research statistical analyst in Purdue’s Department of Agronomy, was responsible for data analysis from the tests.

Mitchell and Massa said they next plan to test Seascape strawberries using LED lighting, hydroponics and different temperature ranges. NASA funded their work.

Adapted from information issued by Purdue University / Purdue Agricultural Communication / Tom Campbell.