Frequently asked questions

  1. What is Tomatosphere™?
  2. Why tomatoes?
  3. What type of seeds are involved in the program?
  4. Why are we studying seeds and plants for long-term space travel?
  5. Who are the sponsors of Tomatosphere™?
  6. Is Mars in the future for astronauts?
  7. What data will the students gather?
  8. What will the students do with the data?
  9. How long does the Tomatosphere™ program take?
  10. What will students learn by participating in this program?
  11. My curriculum is already really full. How can I squeeze this program in?
  12. How will teachers be involved in this program?
  13. I home school my child. Can I be involved in Tomatosphere™?
  14. I am a family studies/home economics teacher. Can I register my class for this program?
  15. As a teacher, how do I register my class for this program?
  16. I keep hearing about using "growing spheres." What are they, how do they work and where can I get them?
  17. What effects do scientists expect that solar radiation and micro-gravity will have on the tomato seeds?
  18. Are the effects of micro-gravity and increased solar radiation expected to last for months after the seeds return to Earth?
  19. Why don't the astronauts do the experiment in space?
  20. Isn't growing the seeds on Earth going to give extremely different results than on the ISS?

1. What is Tomatosphere™?

Tomatosphere™ uses the excitement of space exploration to teach the skills and processes of scientific experimentation and inquiry. Students investigate the effects of the space environment on the growth of food that will inevitably support long-term human space travel.

Each classroom is sent two packages of tomato seeds. One package contains seeds that have been sent into space or treated in space-simulated conditions. The other package will contain "control" seeds, which have not been in space. Through the Tomatosphere™ program, students will learn how to conduct a scientific experiment and compare the germination rates of the two groups of seeds. Tomatosphere™ relies on a "blind test" in which educators and students will not know which of the two packages are the "space" seeds and which are control seeds until the germination process is complete and results have been submitted.

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2. Why tomatoes?

Tomatoes are extremely versatile and nutritious. They have high levels of vitamin A and vitamin C and also contain lycopene, an ingredient that may help prevent certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. Tomatoes are included in Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating as part of the recommendation of 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily.

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3. What types of seeds are involved in the program?

The seeds are a plum tomato type from traditional, conventional sources and have not been altered through any means (including biotechnology). They are a variety of seed from H.J. Heinz Canada - H9478 F1. This is a very versatile variety that can be used for tomato paste products, fresh juice, and whole peel. The plants will produce mature fruit in a period between 85 and 105 days depending upon growing conditions.

Teachers and students will not know the origin of the two different types of seeds used in the program until germination results have been submitted. This maintains the validity of the experiment.

One group of seeds is a control group; these seeds have had no special treatment. A second group of seeds have either been sent to space or treated in space-like conditions.

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4. Why are we studying seeds and plants for long-term space travel?

Food availability and life support are major limiting factors in extended space travel (Mars) and exploration. Plants will be needed to provide a source of fresh, nutritious food and to generate a vital life support system. The addition of oxygen and water as well as the removal of carbon dioxide to the closed environment aboard the space vehicle will be vital to the long-term mission. Currently scientists need to know how extended periods of time in space affect the germination and growth of plants.

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5. Who are the sponsors of Tomatosphere™?


Tomatosphere is supported by Let's Talk Science, the Canadian Space Agency, HeinzSeed, Stokes Seeds, the University of Guelph, and First the Seed Foundation.

The sponsors provide both monetary and "in-kind" contributions to the program. Tomatoshere™ is indebted to the individuals and organizations that have come together from academia, government and the private sector to make this a successful program.

Let’s Talk Science manages the operations of Tomatosphere™ in Canada while First the Seed Foundation manages the operations of Tomatosphere™ in the United States.

Teachers are encouraged to visit these sponsors' website.

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6. Is Mars in the future for astronauts?

Mars will be the next major global space program after the International Space Station and the establishment of a base on the Moon. Canada is positioning itself to play a signature role in the exploration of Mars and in the provision of life support and closed environment systems for space travel. Canada is also participating in the Aurora Program with the European Space Agency.

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7. What data will the students gather?

There are opportunities for teachers to direct students to gather a variety of information about the tomato plants, their germination, vigour and growth patterns. However, the key element of the Tomatoshere™ research program focuses on the germination rates of the seeds that are planted. In addition to the amount of time that it takes for the seeds to germinated, we would like to know WHEN teachers have planted (actual dates are required). More information is included in "Tips and Tricks" and in the teacher's manual.

The students will observe:

  • The time required for each seed to successfully germinate.
  • The number of successfully germinated seeds in each treatment.

As an option, teachers may wish to have their students collect data on:

  • Seedling vigour as determined by height measurements. Some classes may continue to grow the seedlings out of doors, harvest the tomatoes … and even make “space salsa”!

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8. What will the students do with the data?

Students will compile information, the teacher will submit the results online at the Tomatosphere™ website and the results will be combined with the other experiments across Canada. An automatic response will then convey which of the seeds were in each of the two seed packages. Students will be able to compare their class data with other classrooms.

In addition, teachers receive a certificate of participation for students in the class. The certificate is signed by former Canadian Astronaut, Dr. Robert Thirsk, and the principal investigator of the Tomatoshere™ program, Dr. Michael Dixon from the University of Guelph.

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9. How long does Tomatosphere™ program take?

The scope of the experiment will depend on the teacher, the interest of the students, and the amount of time available in the curriculum for this topic. We recognize the difficulties of covering large amounts of content for classroom teachers and have designed the program to align with curriculum requirements. The Tomatosphere™ program should be viewed as an integral part of the current curriculum rather than an "add-on" to the curriculum.

Students will observe the process anywhere from seedling germination to full-grown tomatoes (approximately 3 months). The critical germination period is 1-3 weeks, and the growth period is about 4-6 weeks. Teachers may choose to focus ONLY on the germination part of the program; alternatively, the program can continue with observations about plant vigour and growth.

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10. What will students learn by participating in this program?

Tomatosphere™ connects with the curriculum for science inquiry and process skills, as well as the following science content strands:

  • Grades K-2: needs and characteristics of living things
  • Grades 3-4: plants, soil, habitats, nutrition
  • Grades 5-6: space, human needs, weather
  • Grades 7-8: Mars, careers, environmental studies
  • Grades 9-10: space exploration, nutrition, environmental studies
  • Grades 11-12: ecosystems, agriculture/agriscience, photosynthesis, sustainable development, planetary science, space exploration, plant biology

There are currently separate lesson plans and student activities for grades 2-4, 5-7 and 8-10 in the teacher's guide (also available online at this site).

These are also optional units that the teacher can use to supplement the central study of the germination of the seeds.

These four units are grade-specific and include:

  • How to Feed a Martian (grades 3/4)
  • Surviving on the Red Planet (grade 6)
  • The Martian Environment (grades 7/8)
  • The Energy to Survive (grades 9/10)

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11. My curriculum is already really full. How can I squeeze this program in?

The Tomatoshere™ Program has been designed to align with the curriculum concepts and skills and supports students’ learning of experimental design and inquiry skills. The Tomatoshere™ Program will allow teachers to engage a variety of science expectations as well as the opportunity to involve students in cross-curricular activities like careers, environmental studies, health and nutrition, mathematics and even the arts.

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12. How will teachers be involved in this program?

Teachers are the key contact persons for the program.

Teachers will receive the seed packages in the spring of each year. Planting can take place either in the spring or the fall. Lesson plans, background information, curriculum connections and assessment suggestions are all included in the Teachers' Guide on the website. We suggest conducting the experiment in the spring when possible.

One of the key roles for the teacher is the online submission of results (by visiting tomatosphere.org and selecting "Submit Results" in the main menu). We ask that teachers complete this task since the submission also involves assessment of the Tomatoshere™ program itself.

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13. I home school my child. Can I be involved in Tomatosphere™?

Home schoolers are encouraged to work with others in the area and combine to form a "small class" that can be involved. This will ensure that our seeds and other peripherals are utilized to the best advantage for the program budget. It also provides an opportunity for home-schooled students to work in a group environment and to be involved in a team approach, much like the environment in which astronauts and other scientists work.

A group of home schooling families can plan and implement the program together and designate one family as the contact and register. The contact should register as a classroom teacher indicating the number of teachers as ONE and also indicating the number of students involved.

NOTICE: Unfortunately, Tomatoshere™ is unable to provide seeds to home schooling families outside of Canada on an individual basis. The costs of packaging and mailing make this part of the program cost prohibitive. We apologize for the inconvenience, however the decision was made so as to allow as many students as possible to be involved in the program.

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14. I am a family studies/home economics teacher. Can I register my class for this program?

Tomatoshere™ focuses on science - biology, space, energy. However, we recognize that the program will be of interest to teachers in other areas as well, particularly those teachers teaching about the applications of science, including environmental studies, nutrition, and social studies. The curriculum connections and assessment suggestions focus on science; consequently, teachers in other disciplines will have to create their own assessment instruments.

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15. As a teacher, how do I register my class for this program?

You can register here online at tomatosphere.org. Depending on when you register, you will receive your seeds at different times.  If you register by February, you should receive your seeds at the end of February; if you register between February and mid-March, you should receive your seeds at the end of March. If you register after mid-March, you probably should receive your seeds approximately 2 weeks after registration. If you register after June, you will be registering for seeds in the following school year.

You plant your seeds ANYTIME after you receive them, but results should be submitted by the end of June (for spring planting) or by mid-January (for fall planting). The program involves automatic annual renewal for teachers, however, teachers will always receive a notice in the fall and winter asking if they wish to be removed from the Tomatoshere™ database.

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16. I keep hearing about using "growing spheres." What are they, how do they work and where can I get them?

Growing spheres or cubes (hydrophilic water gel) are small polymers that have a strong affinity for water – like a sponge absorbing water. They swell to about 300 times their size from about 3 mm in diameter to about 2.5 cm (1”) in diameter. By placing a seed in the sphere, students can actually see the germination process taking place – something students cannot see when the seed is placed in a peat pellets. For 2015, it is suggested that teachers use only a few of the seeds to experiment with the growing spheres AS AN OPTIONAL ACTIVITY. The growing spheres are available from a number of sources.  They can be purchased from stores that sell floral accessories and occasionally even in “dollar” stores. There are several educational suppliers as well who carry these spheres. Check with your science equipment supplier for your school or board.

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17. What effects do scientists expect that solar radiation and micro-gravity will have on the tomato seeds?

Cosmic radiation is the big unknown in terms of responses by living organisms (plant and animal). There is a considerable amount of radiation shielding on ISS to protect the crew but questions still remain about how this will affect plants (especially long term genetic affects or mutations). As for micro-gravity (or migro-g), there does not appear to be any direct physiological affects on plants, especially seeds, but since gas exchange at the leaf surface (CO2, O2, water vapour) and water availability in the root zone are very different in micro-g this may affect plant-environment interaction in the longer term objectives of growing plants in space..

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18. Are the effects of micro-gravity and increased solar radiation expected to last for months after the seeds return to Earth?

We don't expect much in the way of lasting effects on seeds from micro-g but the jury is still out on the radiation affects. Yes, they should persist indefinitely after the seeds return to Earth if there are genetic influences. As levels of public education about radiation in space improve, this will likely become a more important aspect of the science missions regarding plants in space.

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19. Why don't the astronauts do the experiment in space?

There are extreme limitations on the availability of astronaut time, resources and space on the ISS. The question posed by this experiment is "If seeds are exposed to space conditions (eg. 6 months on ISS as an analog of a transit mission to Mars which takes about 6 months) will they still germinate and perform their roles as life support machines for humans supplying food, oxygen, fresh water and scrubbing carbon dioxide?" Obviously if germination is an issue then we have a lot of work to do to make sure our proposed life support systems perform reliably on the Moon, Mars and beyond. So this first part of the question is a critical (albeit small) step in advancing the technology of biological life support systems in space.

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20. Isn't growing the seeds on Earth going to give extremely different results than on the ISS?

Since we are just looking mainly for seed germination affects at this stage and expect any of these to persist in the seeds long after exposure it should not make a difference where the germination experiments take place. The longer term goals of growing plants on other planetary surfaces in our solar system will require a great deal more experimentation and technology developments. The Russians and Americans have grown plants on MIR and the ISS fort many years but their objectives were not related to education and outreach. Tomatoshere™ uses the great appeal of space to the younger generations to deliver a science education message including learning related to space science, plant science, nutrition science and the scientific method of experimental investigation.

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Tomatosphere is supported by Let's Talk Science, the Canadian Space Agency, HeinzSeed, Stokes Seeds, the University of Guelph, and First the Seed Foundation.