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Fungi, Flies, and Microgreens Could be Grown by Astronauts in the ‘Space Farms’ of Tomorrow

Discover the future of space farming as astronauts explore growing fungi, flies, and microgreens in space.

An illustration of what the space farms of tomorrow might look like
An illustration of what the space farms of tomorrow might look like. Photos: Interstellar Lab

The Deep Space Food Challenge has brought together innovative teams from around the world to develop solutions for growing food in space. These solutions are not only crucial for future astronauts on long-duration missions but also hold potential for addressing food security and sustainability challenges on Earth.

The challenge has progressed from the conceptual Phase 1 to the developmental Phase 2, where teams have built and demonstrated “kitchen-scale” prototypes of their high-tech agricultural inventions. Among the notable developments are microbe-based proteins, such as fungi-based meatballs and cheese-like bites, which offer a viable alternative to traditional animal-based sources.

Fungi emerged as a surprising winner in the competition due to their versatility and ability to utilize various substrates for growth. The use of fungi, fed by microalgae nourished by fungi-sourced CO2, showcased its potential for sustainable protein production. Another team used bacteria that metabolize hydrogen gas, a readily available resource on spacecraft, to create a protein-heavy powder called Solein. This bright yellow powder contains all essential amino acids and can be incorporated into a variety of dishes.

The challenge also explored alternative methods for growing food. Some teams focused on artificial photosynthesis to grow oyster mushrooms without sunlight, while others presented compartmentalized growing systems for plants, mushrooms, and insects. These self-contained ecosystems would allow for precise control of ambient conditions and efficient food production in space.

Ascent Technologies stood out as the only team addressing the problem of cooking food safely in microgravity. Their centrifugal oven, SATED, cooked a delicious pizza in a temperature-controlled and smoke-free environment.

While these innovations are crucial for space exploration, they also have implications for addressing food production challenges on Earth. With a rapidly growing global population, increased food production is necessary, along with sustainable and climate-resilient farming practices. The technologies developed for space could be adapted to Earth’s limited resources and inhospitable climates, contributing to food security and environmental sustainability.

Moving forward, Phase 3 of the challenge will focus on testing the durability and long-term safety of the designs. Additionally, the taste and appeal of the food will be a critical aspect to ensure astronauts’ satisfaction during long missions. Ultimately, the goal is to provide nutritious and appetizing meals to sustain astronauts’ physical and psychological well-being in space.

The Deep Space Food Challenge not only pushes the boundaries of food production in space but also has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and food systems on Earth, addressing the challenges of the future while advancing human exploration of the cosmos.

The Deep Space Food Challenge represents a significant step forward in our understanding of sustainable and efficient food production, both in space and on Earth. The innovative solutions developed by the competing teams highlight the importance of thinking outside the box and exploring unconventional food sources and production methods.

One of the key takeaways from the challenge is the potential of microbe-based proteins, such as fungi and bacteria, as alternative protein sources. By harnessing the power of these microorganisms, teams have demonstrated that it is possible to grow protein-rich food in resource-limited environments. This not only addresses the limitations of traditional livestock farming but also offers a more sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to food production.

Moreover, the challenge has emphasized the importance of self-contained ecosystems and modular growing systems. These systems, capable of cultivating a variety of crops, mushrooms, and even insects, provide a level of flexibility and control that is essential for sustaining life in space. The ability to adapt to different growth conditions and optimize resource utilization is a valuable lesson that can be applied to terrestrial farming as well.

The potential impact of these innovations extends beyond the boundaries of space exploration. With the global population projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, the need for sustainable and efficient food production methods has never been more pressing. The technologies developed for the Deep Space Food Challenge offer a glimpse into the future of agriculture, where food can be produced in challenging environments, addressing issues of food security and climate change.

Additionally, the competition has highlighted the importance of taste and sensory appeal in food. While the focus has primarily been on nutrition and sustainability, it is equally crucial to create food that astronauts enjoy eating. Long-duration space missions require meals that provide not only nourishment but also comfort and enjoyment. By prioritizing the taste and texture of space food, the challenge encourages the development of culinary experiences that can uplift the astronauts’ spirits during their missions.

As the Deep Space Food Challenge moves into its next phase, the collaboration between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the competing teams will continue to push the boundaries of food innovation. The challenge provides a platform for ongoing research and development, enabling scientists, engineers, and food experts to refine their concepts and address the remaining challenges in space food production.

Ultimately, the insights gained from this endeavor have the potential to revolutionize the way we think about food production on Earth. By embracing novel approaches and leveraging cutting-edge technologies, we can create a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food system that can meet the needs of a growing global population while protecting our planet’s resources. The Deep Space Food Challenge serves as a testament to the power of human ingenuity and collaboration in shaping a better future for both space exploration and life on Earth.

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