Tuesday, August 16

The crazy ideas to feed the astronauts of the future: from microalgae to crickets or bread baked in space

Space missions don’t seem made for exquisite palates. Or little given to trying new recipes and ingredients, at least. Although we don’t know for sure when the first manned trip to Mars will be completed –in an interview with XATAKA, Pedro Duque estimated that with a powerful investment it will take at least two decades – what is certain is that who or who stars in it will have to take with them supplies of water and food for a good season: about nine months for the outbound trip and as many for the return trip, according to the calculations that the astrophysicist and astrobiologist Angélica Andamientos recently shelled in The country.

To be successful, manned space missions – especially the longest ones – need formulas that guarantee their crews safe, nutritious and, if possible, tasty food. NASA and its Canadian counterpart (CSA) know this and at the beginning of 2021 they decided to launch the call for the Deep Space Food Challenge, a public competition that precisely encourages the development of technologies and food production systems from one of the “watchwords” of efficiency: producing a lot, of quality and generating the least amount of waste possible.

Infographic showing a greenhouse on Mars fitted with special lighting systems and hydroponic cultivation.

His vocation is not only spatial. The results of the Deep Space Food Challenge could also help improve food production here on earth, an attractive idea in urban areas or harsh environments, such as arid water-scarce regions.

The International Space Station receives its first space refrigerators: with them they hope to improve the astronauts' diet

The challenge from NASA and CSA – each one opened the competition to teams from their respective countries, but candidates from other states have also been able to participate, at an international level – proposed a clear and demanding challenge: to devise formulas for feed four people during a three-year round-trip space mission no possibility of resupply. All, of course, producing the least amount of waste while maximizing production. Different categories were also launched: manufacturing, biocultures and plant growth.

Recipes not suitable for all stomachs

After months of studies and with the proposals already presented, NASA and CSA selected 38 winning teams from the first phase – there is now a second on the agenda – among which there are profiles as diverse as professional chefs, students or companies. Each received $ 25,000 to develop their ideas. What menus do you suggest for the astronauts of tomorrow? His approaches range from growing vegetables in conditions similar to those on Mars to baking bread on a space shuttle or using microalgae for “crunchy sandwiches.”

“Beehex” proposes, for example, dehydrating plants and meats to store them in hermetically sealed cartridges that allow to extend the useful life of food more than five years. “BigRedBites” makes use of cyanobacteria, yeasts and fungi and presents a method that would cover 15% of the caloric needs of the day. In the case of “Deep Space Entomoculture” the key is the insect cells, “Mission: Space Food” proposes the cultivation of meat from stem cells and cryopreservation and “Nolux” suggests installing an artificial photosynthetic system to produce plants and fungi independently of biological photosynthesis.


Advanced Plant Habitat, an example of the technology promoted by NASA and CSA.

One of the proposals selected in the international category –as collected by Space.com– it bears the unappetizing name of “Electric Cow” and proposes convert CO2 and waste into food thanks to the use of microorganisms and 3D printing. Another, “JPWorks SRL”, from Italy, offers a method for growing nanoplants and micro-vegetables in a pollution-proof ecosystem.

From Brazil, “LTCOP” put on the table the use of vertical panels for the production of vegetables and fruits in conditions similar to those of Mars; and in Florida the promoters of “Space Bread” devised an innovative system that lets astronauts bake bread in space thanks to multifunctional bags in which the ingredients are already included.

In Canada, among other solutions, “MARTLET” was raised, a system of breeding, gathering and processing to produce food rich in protein. Your raw material? Tens of thousands of crickets. The CSA technicians table also came “The Outpost”, de Canacompost Systems, an innovative solution that proposes the use of larvae and microbiota of the black soldier fly to generate organic fertilizer rich in nutrients in an automated system. The list goes on and on.

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The objective: to keep the crews well nourished, with provisions, as little waste as possible and … Why not? With a satisfied palate.

After all, not so long ago we have already seen the astronauts, in the framework of the Plant Habitat 04 program, preparing tacos with peppers grown on the International Space Station.

Images | NASA, Space.com and SAIC


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