The Van Trump Report

Protein Made From Air and a Simulated Photosynthesis Among the Finalists in NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge

As NASA gets closer to sending the first astronauts to Mars, they have a lot of critical details to work out. To help them get there, NASA, in coordination with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), has enlisted the public’s assistance in developing new technologies and systems to produce one of the most important fuels of all – food. NASA just recently announced the winners in the second phase of its Deep Space Food Challenge, which includes $750,000 worth of prizes. Those winners are now moving on to the third and final phase of the challenge where they will compete for up to $1.5 million in total prizes.

The goal of the Deep Space Food Challenge is to generate novel food production technologies or systems that require minimal resources and produce minimal waste, while providing safe, nutritious food. It’s also extremely helpful if that food is actually tasty with lots of options for variety. Grace Douglas, the lead scientist for NASA’s Exploration Food System project, points out that the military limits troops to 21 days eating only MREs because it has found that after that time, soldiers are so sick of them that they just start eating less.

A trip to the red planet and back could take a minimum of 3 years with our current rocket technology. The speed of a trip is closely tied to the total weight onboard the spacecraft, and every ounce added requires more fuel to carry it, which adds even more weight. Each of the pre-packaged daily meals consumed by current astronauts weighs about 1.83 pounds. Meaning a Mars mission crew of four eating three meals a day would require some 6.4 tons of food for their trip.

Keep in mind, that weight does not include the water needed to make the meals edible. Food also progressively loses its nutritional value over time, which runs the risk of pre-packaged food not being able to sufficiently meet all the needs for maintaining healthy astronauts. Bottom line, carrying 3 years or more worth of pre-packaged food is not a practical or healthy option.

The creative solutions developed by Phase 2 winners of NASA’s challenge all built and demonstrated small-scale prototypes of their technologies. In Phase 3, they will be tasked with demonstrating those technologies at full-scale over the next year. Each winning Phase 2 team also received $150,000 in prizes to help them get there. Ralph Fritsche, senior project manager for space crop production at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, explained that some of the concepts are more feasible for near-term applications, while other innovative ideas could come into work around 30 to 40 years from now.  

The five U.S. teams now competing for the $1.5 million in total prizes from NASA in Phase 3 include:
Air Company of Brooklyn, New York, has developed a system and processes for turning air, water, electricity, and yeast into food. Specifically, the technology uses the carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts in flight to grow yeast-based nutrients for protein shakes.

Interstellar Lab of Merritt Island, Florida, created a modular bioregenerative system for producing fresh microgreens, vegetables, mushrooms, and insects. Its Nutritional Closed-Loop Eco-Unit System, or “NUCLEUS,” is a modular structure composed of nine cube capsules capable of producing fresh microgreens, vegetables, mushrooms, and even edible insects.

Kernel Deltech USA of Cape Canaveral, Florida, developed a system for cultivating mushroom-based ingredients. The company has described it as a “fungi-food version of a coffee pod machine.” The team’s patented technology employs artificial intelligence and robotics to simplify the use of an otherwise complex production system.

Nolux of Riverside, California, created a solution that mimics the photosynthesis that happens in nature to produce plant- and mushroom-based ingredients.

SATED (Safe Appliance, Tidy, Efficient, and Delicious) of Boulder, Colorado, developed a space cooking appliance that would allow astronauts to prepare a variety of meals from ingredients with long shelf lives. The appliance has built-in heaters and spins the ingredients in a circle at a high-speed similar to zero-gravity carnival rides, which would prevent the food from flying off in space.
NASA and CSA also selected three international teams to advance their technologies in Phase 3:
Enigma of the Cosmos of Melbourne, Australia, created an adaptive growing system to increase the efficiency of plants’ natural growth cycles.

Mycorena of Gothenburg, Sweden, developed a system that uses a combination of microalgae and fungi to produce a microprotein.

Solar Foods of Lappeenranta, Finland, has created a protein that can be made “out of thin air,” called Solein. It is made from single-cell organisms, which only require air, electricity and trace amounts of mineral nutrients to grow in a bioreactor. Solar Foods has also designed a Solein production unit concept that uses gas fermentation technology. (Sources: NASA, Technology Review, Nerdist)

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