Astronauts celebrate first space chilli pepper harvest with space tacos

Peppers were chosen by NASA because of their high vitamin C content.
Peppers were chosen by NASA because of their high vitamin C content. Photo credit: Twitter

If you're both a fan of spicy foods and are thinking about hitching a ride with Elon Musk to Mars, you'll probably be excited about a new NASA space experiment.

On Friday Megan McArthur became the first astronaut to harvest the International Space Station's (ISS) crop of chilli peppers and she celebrated the best way possible - with tacos.

"Friday Feasting! After the harvest, we got to taste red and green chilli," McArthur tweeted.

"Then we filled out surveys (got to have the data!). Finally, I made my best space tacos yet: Fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes & artichokes and HATCH CHILLI!"

The chilli peppers are being grown as part of the Plant Habitat-04 study, which NASA describes as "one of the most challenging station plant experiments to date" due to the long germination and growing times.

While flying spicy tacos may add a bit of fun to an astronaut's day, there is a serious side to the research. The study is designed to increase NASA's knowledge of growing food crops for long-duration space missions.

"In preparation for Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond, researchers are developing ways to sustain explorers for missions to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit including Mars, missions that may last for months or even years and have limited opportunities for resupply missions," NASA wrote.

"Packaged foods stored for long periods results in degradation of the food quality, which reduces the amount of key nutrients like Vitamin C and Vitamin K.

"Other benefits of growing their own crops includes adding variety to meals so astronauts won't grow tired of repeatedly eating the same foods."

Researchers are also interested in seeing whether there are positive psychological benefits associated with seeing, smelling, and caring for plants while in space.

Why chilli peppers?

One of the reasons peppers were chosen was because of their high vitamin C content as well as their ability to self-pollinate.

That makes them easy to grow and handle in microgravity and they don't require complex processing when picked to make them ready to eat.

Unlike some foods they also have low microbial levels, which means they're safe for the astronauts too.

The peppers were launched into space in June this year and are known as 'Española Improved' peppers. To be selected they had to beat out other Hatch pepper types, including 'Big Jim', 'Sandia' and 'Lumbre X-Hot'.

Chilli peppers in space
Photo credit: Twitter

The 'Española Improved' peppers are considered 'mild heat', hitting between 2000-4000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), about the same as a mild jalapeño pepper.

The SHU depends on the amount of water used while growing, however, so further tests will be carried out to determine a more accurate rating.

Unfortunately fresh chilli Taco Friday isn't going to become a regular thing for those on the ISS. While they did get to try out a few of the crop, the rest are going to be sent back to Earth for analysis.