Space farmers of the future may grow fungi, flies, and Microgreens

A few weeks ago, I arrived hungry at Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City, ready for a one-of-a-kind culinary experience. Finalists for NASA and the Canadian Space Agency Deep space food challenge They came from all over the planet to demonstrate how future astronauts can grow their own food. I descended on a small cup of chocolate mousse topped with raspberries.


said Koruna Rawal, Chief Marketing Officer of the company Vend Nature—a Chicago-based company that’s developing microbe-based proteins and has a team finalist in competition — I was eating mousse, which is made from microscopic fungi. (The raspberries were just berries.) I expected it to taste like a nice, granular protein powder, but it was smooth and rich. For nothing, I moved on to the fungus-based “meatballs” in tomato sauce, which were as meaty as any meat substitute I’ve had.

For most people, the term “space food” brings to mind chalky, crumbly “astronaut ice cream,” which is, in fact, mostly a myth. Crumbly foods are a no-go for astronauts because small pieces lost in microgravity can do untold damage to delicate spacecraft components. Visitors to the International Space Station usually eat sturdier, non-perishable items than sealed packages. Back in the day, Apollo-era astronauts ate delicacies cube-shaped like shrimp cocktail and date cake. Some of them were, apparently, very appetizing. Declare “Happiness is bacon squares for breakfast” Apollo 8 Crew member Jim Lovell while on the halfway to the moon in 1968.

But venturing to Mars or beyond may require an entirely different approach. Without a steady (and very expensive) flow of supply shipments, habitats in space and other outposts of the future will need to serve as highly engineered, self-sustaining ecosystems that grow satisfying and healthy food.


That’s what the Deep Space Food Challenge, launched in 2021, is all about. This year, 11 US and six international teams with bold ideas for miniaturizing the Circle of Life have moved from conceptual stage one to developmental stage two, building and demonstrating prototypes “on Kitchen Level” for their high-tech agricultural inventions. In addition, 12 American teams and two international teams joined the competition in the second stage. crowned At the May event in Brooklyn, we’ll be moving on to drafting “large-scale” Phase 3 demos. The US-based teams received a check for $150,000.

“If we’re realistic about becoming a multi-planetary species, we have to learn how to reduce or cut the umbilical cord that connects us to Earth,” says Pablo de Leon, team leader of one of the Phase 2 winners. Company oriented division Timeless Bioworks. The Florida-based team brought out a cast-iron skillet to fry slices of fake cheese, which were accompanied by burger bites. Both foods were made from a type of protein-rich fungi called Fusarium veninatum.

This fungus has a long history of human consumption and is also used by the Quorn meat substitute brand. The Kernel Deltech team has developed compact bioreactors that can grow and harvest fungi in microgravity with very limited resources. The result is a gray powder packed with protein. Her visual transformation into cheeseburger-like bites was impressive, but the burger was tasteless and mushy, and the cheese was artificial and sticky. I would say it had “room for improvement”.

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Fungi were the clear winner that day, to the surprise of Ralph Fritsch, senior project manager for Space Crop Production at NASA. Up until this point, he says, most space food research has focused on plants. “This is kind of a wake-up call for me,” Fritsch says, “to investigate further the possibilities of fungi.” This is a very versatile organism[s] It can draw on many different sources as a substrate to grow on,” says Kristina Carlson, member of the International Finalists team. Mikurina From Gothenburg, Sweden. The mycorina system grows fungi by feeding on microalgae that feed on carbon dioxide from the fungus.2.

solar foods, an international team from Lappeenranta, Finland, took a different approach to their protein-heavy powder: bacteria. Arttu Luukanen, the team representative at the event, presented me with a bright yellow cookie made from powder. Solar Foods uses safe-to-eat microbes that can metabolize hydrogen gas for growth. Hydrogen is readily available on spacecraft as a by-product of standard life support systems that produce breathable oxygen using electrolysis to separate water molecules. Leftover hydrogen is often dumped, says Luukanen, but Solar Foods instead recycles the gas for microbial-based protein growth.

The result is a bright yellow powder called Solein that looks like turmeric, contains all the essential amino acids and can be easily incorporated into practically any dish. The Sulin-based cookie was very hard to chew, though I gave it some grace since it probably traveled all the way from Finland. “I’ve tried Solein in a variety of foods, and it’s been excellent,” says NASA’s Fritsch.


Other finalists rely on the hydrogen of space habitats, too. Airlinea Brooklyn-based company that converts captured carbon dioxide2 To a sustainable jet fuel, hydrogen and carbon dioxide are used2, which, in practice, comes from the astronauts’ breath—to produce ethanol, the buzz-inducing alcohol in drinks. (One killer: The ethanol is then used to feed and grow nutritional yeast, not to make the beverage.) “The way I see it is our technology can provide the bottom of the food pyramid, the base,” says Stafford Sheehan, co-founder of Airline.

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For some dietary variety, other teams focus on using larger, larger organisms. Nolux, a team of researchers from the University of California, Riverside, and the University of Delaware, has developed an artificial photosynthesis method that can grow oyster mushrooms without sunlight. their way, Posted in nature foodsElectrolysis is used to convert exhaled carbon dioxide2 and water into oxygen and acetate. The acetate is then pumped into the growth chamber to feed the fungus, which can swell in the dark in a matter of weeks. This process also works on algae and yeast and is more efficient than photosynthesis at converting energy into biomass.

“The beauty of the system really is how effective it is,” says Nolux team member Marcus Harland-Dunaaway. The team is now working on genetically modifying more conventional crops to get energy from this alternative source, he says.


The most visually impressive demonstration belonged to Florida-based Interstellar Lab, which has developed a system that can grow plants, mushrooms, and insects — each in its own little cube. “This is a big problem,” says Nolux team member Andres Narváez of the Modular Display at Interstellar Lab. The segmented growth cubes will allow astronaut growers to individually control the ambient conditions of each cube. The team showcased enormous mushrooms, leafy greens, and black soldier fly larvae that they “self-harvest” by landing on a ramp (a process that needs to be revised to work in microgravity), where they are collected and pulverized into protein-rich. powder. Fortunately for me, the team didn’t provide any caterpillar samples, but they did provide some tasty little greens.

The mystery of the universeA team from GAIA Project Australia has also developed a high-tech, compact system for growing leafy greens. Its two-square-meter (21.5-square-foot) system can produce up to 1.6 pounds of leafy greens and microgreens per day, according to a press release.

Finally, you visit the exotic winner: Ascent Technologies, the only team that has tackled the problem of cooking food safely in microgravity. Her system is called SATED (Safe, Neat, Efficient, and Delicious Appliance), and it’s a food processor-sized centrifugal oven that cooks while spinning. At the event, SATED served a cylindrical pizza—arguably more of a stromboli or perhaps a calzone—with cheese and toppings facing inward. And in no small part because it was just an ordinary, unassuming pizza, it was really tasty.

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“Everything is temperature controlled, very safe — there’s no way to mess up your cooking, no way to smoke or even burn your food here,” Jim Sears, founder of Ascent Technologies, said during a livestream of the event.

Astronauts aren’t the only ones who could benefit from these innovations because the teams were also required to think about how their inventions could help feed humans here on Earth. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that food production should be 60 percent increase by 2050 To feed nearly 10 billion people. At the same time, climate change will continue to threaten staple crops around the world, causing global food insecurity. In addition, the current diet contributes 20 to 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Designed to work in the resource-limited void of space, these innovations could more sustainably feed a growing population on Earth and address food insecurity in uninhabitable climates.

“Every one of [these technologies] It aims for sustainability,” Fritsch says. “I think that’s part of the beauty.”


He says the second stage of the competition exceeded Fritsch’s expectations. “I was sitting there during the meeting, thinking, ‘Okay, what are we going to ask these guys to do for Phase 3?'” “The next logical step is to test the designs’ durability and long-term safety,” he says.

Ultimately, food will also need to attract astronauts. “If astronauts don’t like something that’s been provided to them, in the long run, they won’t eat it,” Fritsch says. Protein powders, whether made from fungi, larvae, or nutritional yeast, will need to be transformed in the spacecraft’s kitchen into attractive food in order to satisfy any crew’s hunger, both physically and psychologically, for a good meal.

Let’s hope, for the sake of all future astronauts, someone at least figures out how to turn any of these raw materials into delicious squares of bacon.

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