Growing deep space food is a new frontier, and Canadians will test its limits
International challenge offers competitors cash prizes for the best deep space food production system
For many, the term astronaut food conjures images of dehydrated apple sauce and freeze-dried ice cream hauled with them into space from Earth.
But in the relatively near future, nutritious produce grown in deep space could be on the menu for astronauts.
In anticipation of future missions to the moon, to Mars and beyond, space agencies such as NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, as well as the Privy Council Office's Impact Canada Initiative, have launched the Deep Space Food Challenge. It's a call for researchers, scientists and other innovators to develop food production systems that will allow astronauts to grow their own food on long-term, deep space missions.
The challenge comes as space agencies focus their efforts on human exploration of the moon. One of the major difficulties in supplying astronauts with fresh food is that missions don't have an unlimited power supply for growing produce, and they can't create a lot of waste, said Matt Bamsey, Senior Project Manager at the Canadian Space Agency.
"Yes, we can bring a lot of prepackaged food with us, but there's a concern about whether that nutritional value is going to hold for that period of time," he said.
For missions that could stretch on for years, having reliable food production systems that provide astronauts with safe and highly nutritious food is key — as is reducing the need to resupply food from Earth.
"Imagine a crew of six astronauts and a mission of three years," said Bamsey. "That's a lot of food that you need to bring. And so if we're able to have food production technologies that astronauts can produce food in situ, that'll help us have to launch less into space."
Here in Canada, the challenge's brainstorming phase launched Jan. 12, 2021. Academic institutions, businesses and individuals can apply to the challenge with an idea.The second phase — a kitchen demonstration that requires qualifying teams to build a prototype and produce food samples — will happen in the fall for teams that make it to this next level.
Countering the risk of radiation in deep space
Mark Lefsrud and his team of about 50 students — collectively calling themselves the Martlet group, or the McGill Advanced bio-Regenerative Toolkit for Long Excursion Trips — are competing.
Lefsrud, an associate professor in the bioresource engineering department at McGill University, helped develop the Advanced Plant Habitat on the International Space Station, in which astronauts have grown crops such as dwarf wheat.
One of the major considerations for astronauts taking on deep space missions is radiation exposure, which can cause cell and tissue damage and increase astronauts' risk of cancer, neurogenerative diseases and premature aging.
The radiation risk increases beyond Low Earth Orbit, the orbit for the International Space Station, where the zone limit caps at around 1,000 kilometres above the Earth's surface.
WATCH | The challenge for innovators working on the Deep Space Food Challenge:
Foods high in antioxidants can help mitigate that risk. As missions tackle travel beyond Low Earth Orbit, astronauts can increase their uptake of fresh-grown foods high in antioxidants to protect themselves. Lefsrud said that by increasing certain compounds such as lutein, beta carotene, zeaxanthin, lycopene in their diet, "astronauts have a beneficial effect to protect themselves against radiative stress."
The other major factor is taste. Astronauts have to actually want to eat what's being grown in space.
"If we could force the astronauts to eat kale all the time, it would actually be quite beneficial," said Lefsrud. "The difficulty is that people don't like eating kale that much, so the question is what other plants can we choose that are palatable?"
Ideally, there should also be some level of automation for the system, he said. That's because astronauts won't always be present at the station to manage crops.
"What we're looking for here is not just, you know, our grandmother or grandfather's garden in the backyard," said Bamsey. "We're hoping [for] initiatives that are going to help feed our grandchildren and future generations, both on Earth and off Earth."
Food production systems we can also use here on Earth
One community-led food production system in Nunavut provides a model of low-input, high-yield technology for farming in harsh environments.
The Naurvik greenhouse in Gjoa Haven is a hydroponic, containerized station where community technicians have been growing sustainable, fresh food since October 2019. The station isn't currently part of the Deep Space Food Challenge, but it's an independent initiative that space agencies say could serve as a model for deep space missions.
Betty Kogvik, a technician at Naurvik, grows produce all year round, harvesting romaine lettuce, red peppers, and cherry tomatoes and delivering them to elders in the community. Whatever produce is left over is delivered to workplaces or to schools.
"It really helps with the little ones," she told CBC News in a phone call. "We always bring some to the elementary school and high school."
Currently, Kogvik and other Naurvik technicians are planting broccoli. They plan to start a strawberry patch in a few months' time.
Naurvik can successfully operate through 24-hour darkness and 24-hour sunlight using green energy such as solar and wind. It can also withstand a wide range of temperatures, said Adrian Schimnowski, CEO and operations director of the Arctic Research Foundation.
"The project is a really good stepping stone that shows what's possible and raises many questions that give us hints and ideas of how to work in space," he told CBC News.
Likewise, Schimnowski said such technologies could be offered to other communities living in harsh environments to improve food security, by reducing food supply chain shortages and helping reach higher yields for food production in extreme environments or where resources are scarce.
"We hope the innovations that come out of this challenge will provide science and technology benefits and food production benefits for the everyday Canadian," said Bamsey. "We're looking for those solutions that really do take us on the next step to being able to grow food in space that can benefit us here on Earth as well."
The challenge is expected to wrap up in spring 2024, when a Canadian grand prize winner will be announced. NASA's Artemis Program also aims to land "the first woman and the next man" on the moon by then.
- A previous version of this story stated that xanthene can help protect astronauts from space radiation. In fact, it is zeaxanthin that helps protect from radiative stress.Feb 21, 2021 3:37 PM ET