Thursday 14 December 2023

NASA astronauts finally find 1-inch tomato that was 'lost in space' for 8 months


                             NASA astronaut Frank Rubio (right), pictured with dwarf tomatoes on the International Space Station, lost hold of a dwarf tomato shortly after the harvest on March 29, 2023. The tomato's remains were finally retrieved by another ISS crew, who announced the feat on Dec. 6, 2023. (Image credit: NASA)

A foodie space mystery has finally been solved.

The remains of a tiny tomato lost by NASA astronaut Frank Rubio after an off-Earth harvest in March finally showed up on the International Space Station (ISS), more than eight months later.

"Our good friend Frank Rubio, who headed home [already], has been blamed for quite a while for eating the tomato. But we can exonerate him. We found the tomato," NASA astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli said during a livestreamed event on Wednesday (Dec. 6) that celebrated the ISS' 25th anniversary. (Moghbeli did not elaborate where the tomato was found, or what condition it was in).

The minor incident turned into a large inside joke for Rubio in the fall. The 1-inch-wide (2.5 centimeters) Red Robin dwarf tomato was a part of the final harvest for the Veg-05 experiment that Rubio himself had tended through some growing pains

Each ISS astronaut received samples of the tomatoes after the March 29, 2023 harvest, but Rubio's share — stored in a Ziploc bag — floated away before he could take a bite

The missing tomato was first discussed publicly on Sept. 13, when Rubio had his own event in space marking an unexpected record year in orbit for a United States astronaut. (Problems with Rubio's Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which were eventually resolved with the launch of a replacement Soyuz, doubled his expected six-month stay.)

"I spent so many hours looking for that thing," Rubio joked during the ISS livestream in September. "I'm sure the desiccated tomato will show up at some point and vindicate me, years in the future."

To be fair to Rubio, the ISS is larger than a six-bedroom house, and, in microgravity, things can easily float away to unexpected corners. NASA's procedure is usually to check vent intakes, but in a station crowded with 25 years of stuff, it's easy to lose track of individual items.

Also, the tomato search did not unduly occupy his time, as Rubio's Soyuz crew performed hundreds of other science experiments (despite the stress of the delay). If anything, the situation may show more about how to deal with the unexpected when growing plants on the moon or Mars, which the Veggie series of experiments eventually aims to achieve.

Reporters asked Rubio about the lost tomato on Oct. 13, about two weeks after he safely returned home with his delayed crew (Russian cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin) after 371 days in space.

He lamented that the tomato never came to light despite "18 to 20 hours of my own time looking for that." (Rubio may have been exaggerating the time spent for humor.)

"The reality of the problem, you know — the humidity up there is like 17%. It's probably desiccated to the point where you couldn't tell what it was, and somebody just threw away the bag," Rubio added, laughing. "Hopefully somebody will find it someday: a little, shriveled thing."

While the tomato was a light part of Rubio's mission, not all of it was so easy. During the same October event, Rubio spoke about how difficult it was to stay away from his wife, children and friends for so long; he has said that if he'd known he were going to end up spending a year in space, he wouldn't have asked for the mission.

But as Rubio took some time in space to absorb the news of the delay, his connections offered unconditional help for him and his family. "The community around us was just, gosh — they had so much prayers and support. It was really almost overwhelming, how much love and support we've received. So from that perspective, it made it incredibly easy."

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