UPDATE: Tomatosphere Seeds Still Available for Spring 2017!
UPDATE March 3, 2017:
Tomatosphere still has seeds available to distribute to classrooms! Register at
About 6,276 classrooms have signed up so far, reaching over 150,000 students! Tomatosphere has already started mailing seeds to schools, and they’ll continue mailing seeds through September.
You Can Grow Tomatoes from Seeds That Flew in Space!
December 12, 2016
Tomatosphere, a Space Station Explorers partner program, is looking forward to a big year. Through this award-winning, curriculum-driven free program, K–12 students investigate how the space environment affects tomato seeds’ germination and growth. More than 3 million students in North America have participated in Tomatosphere since 2001, and at least 24,000 classrooms in the U.S. and Canada expect to participate in 2017. And teachers still have time to register to get seeds: the deadline is February 17, 2017.
Here’s how Tomatosphere works: In the spring, each registered class gets two packets of about 30-35 seeds each. One set of seeds spent time at the International Space Station and the other did not – but the class doesn’t know which is which. This “blind” experimental design helps minimize observers’ bias. If students knew which seeds had flown in space, they might over-interpret their observations because they expect those seeds to do something unusual.
Students plant and observe both sets of seeds for a few weeks, keeping track of how many seeds germinate. They submit their germination results to the Tomatosphere organizers, who reply by revealing which set of seeds flew in space. Each student receives a “Certificate of Participation” signed by the principal investigators of the project, Dr. Robert Thirsk (retired Canadian Space Agency astronaut) and Dr. Michael Dixon (University of Guelph, Canada). Scientists can access students’ reports and use the data for research.
After reporting their results, many students continue caring for their plants for weeks or months until they bear fruit. Students harvest the tomatoes to eat, or perhaps to prepare salsa – why not spice it up while you space it up? Some students have even planted seeds from the tomatoes to grow a new crop. “We now have people growing third- and fourth-generation space tomatoes,” said Charles Barclay from Marlborough College in England. (Tomatosphere participants are usually in the U.S. and Canada, but Mr. Barclay got some seeds for his college students through a connection with the Canadian project manager.)
Teachers have enjoyed connecting Tomatosphere with a variety of school curricula. Julie Petcu, an educator at Saint Matthew School in Tennessee, has participated in Tomatosphere for twelve years and counting! She likes how it “builds on scientific skills like predicting, recording, math analysis, measurement, group work, etc.” Karen Lindsey, a teacher at Lake Orienta Elementary School in Florida, has grown Tomatosphere seeds with 25 classes in grades 3-5. She said, “I used the tomato plants to enhance my Living Things Unit, the scientific method, space exploration, research, and collaboration!” Free curriculum support materials provide background information and inspiring ideas.
The Tomatosphere seeds classrooms will receive in Spring 2017 traveled to and from the International Space Station on a Dragon cargo capsule as part of the SpaceX CRS 9 resupply mission. The seeds flew aboard the ISS from July 20 to August 25, 2016, a total of 36 days. While in orbit, the seeds were exposed to microgravity (weightlessness) and above-average radiation levels. However, the seeds were not exposed to the freezing cold vacuum of space; they were in a storage area with Earth-like air pressure and temperature. The main difference between the space-flown seeds and the Earth-based seeds is that the space-flown seeds were weightless for a month. Is that enough to alter how the seeds grow? Doing the experiment is the best way to find out!