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Crunchy algae, anyone? NASA shares ideas for food in space

From bugs to algae, and from 3D printing to artificial photosynthesis, NASA has announced a plethora of ideas about what the future of food in space could look like. The agency recently held a challenge asking organizations and members of the public to submit their most daring concepts of how to feed astronauts on space missions.

NASA astronaut Megan McArthur enjoys fresh food on the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Megan McArthur enjoys fresh food on the International Space Station. NASA

NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge invited chefs, small businesses, and students to submit their innovative ideas about how to develop food for astronauts, with the winning teams receiving a prize of $25,000 each.

Some of the winning entries included growing microalgae and dehydrating them into “crunchy bite-sized snacks;” generating foods from insect cells to be eaten in place of meat products; creating a symbiotic system of algae, yeast, mushrooms, and plants which would grow in 3D-printed artificial soil; an artificial photosynthetic system; and a microbial system which uses “plastic and biomass waste as the carbon source for food generation.”

As bizarre and perhaps unappetizing as some of these ideas might sound, being open-minded about different food sources is important for keeping astronauts both mentally and physically healthy on long-duration space missions.

“NASA is excited to engage the public in developing technologies that could fuel our deep space explorers,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, in a statement. “Our approach to deep space human exploration is strengthened by new technological advances and diverse community input. This challenge helps us push the boundaries of exploration capabilities in ways we may not recognize on our own.”

The development of unusual food products and food systems is not only useful for astronauts on space missions. With increasing environmental challenges requiring new approaches to agriculture, they could also benefit all of us here on Earth.

“These types of food systems could offer benefits on our home planet,” said Robyn Gatens, director of the International Space Station Program at NASA and challenge judge. “Solutions from this challenge could enable new avenues for worldwide food production in resource-scarce regions and locations where disasters disrupt critical infrastructure.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the competition, the winning entries, and the issue of food in space, then NASA will air a show all about the challenge on November 9 at 11 a.m. ET (8 a.m. PT). You can watch online it by heading over to NASA TV’s website.

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