Space Pizza and Robotic Gardens: Producing food in orbit

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When we think of space food in the future, perhaps we will imagine a freshly baked pizza topped with vegetables grown on a spaceship replacing the powders and tubes of paste that astronauts consumed in the past.

New advancements in food technology could make zero gravity grub as healthy and delicious as any Earth-cooked meal, thanks to initiatives such as NASA’s Advanced Food Technology Program, which explores how 3D printing could be used to prepare fresh meals for astronauts.

All food for long-term deep space explorations must be pre-packaged and have a shelf life of 15 years or more, as refrigeration and freezing are not available. In addition, meals must be quick and easy to prepare since astronauts will rarely have time to cook.

3D printed food could meet all these requirements. The method dehydrates nutrient-filled ingredients into long-lasting powders that are mixed by a 3D printer with water or oil to rehydrate, and then cooked by the machine for a wholesome meal.

NASA has partnered with Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to make 3D printed space food a reality – and they are already seeing results.

The company has developed a 3D printer that assembles a pizza layer by layer, baking and heating it as it goes along, for a meal that is ready in minutes. While the machine prototype needs further development before it is tested in space, it has the potential to greatly improve astronauts’ meals, as well as to deliver 3D printed foods to us here on Earth.

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The space veg patch

NASA’s other food technology project involves fresh ingredients – so fresh that they are harvested aboard the spacecraft.

The agency has asked university students to come up with solutions for growing edible plants in space, and a team from the University of Colorado Boulder has proposed a promising plan for robotic gardening.

Their project, titled Plants Anywhere: Plants Growing in Free Habitat Spaces, places plants in small hydroponic growth chambers, called SmartPots, which use computers and sensors to keep track of each plant’s development. These SmartPots communicate the conditions of their plants to a remotely operated gardening rover (ROGR), which moves around the cabin responding to the system’s commands for water or other needs.

The ROGR robots can also harvest the fruit and vegetables. If an astronaut wants to make a salad, for instance, the growing system determines the plant with the best, ripest vegetables and tells the robot to collect them.

Solutions for Earth and Mars

Beyond growing food for long space journeys, the robotic gardening project could offer insight into how we would grow food for a colony on other planets, such as Mars, since the hydroponic chambers would allow plants to flourish in treacherous environments.

Astronauts need to eat nutrient-filled meals to sustain their energy and brainpower on arduous missions. If such a meal also delivers the flavours and textures of home comforts such as cooked-to-order pizza or a perfectly fresh salad, it will no doubt also boost their morale and emotional well-being on long space missions.

It seems that NASA’s space food research is making that happen with methods that have exciting implications for everyone back on Earth, too – whether we are 3D printing our breakfast or planning a visit to a colony on Mars.


Images courtesy of NASA.


In Pictures: Living every day as an astronaut

It may not be the most practical way of dressing but this is what it is like to live every day as an astronaut.

When we do eventually colonise parts of space what we wear will have changed incredibly but these photos show what challenges our clothing may need to adapt to.

Photographer Tim Dodd purchased the Russian space suit in an online auction in November 2013 and since then he’s been photographing it being used in situations that we encounter on a regular basis.

From daily routines of teeth brushing to a night out clubbing, the suit has been experiencing scenarios that its designers would never have envisioned.

He was, unsurprisingly, the only bidder on the suit and says he has always been a lover of space.

Here we see some of his best photographs of the suit in use and find out what made him buy the suit. More of his work can be found on his Instagram account

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What made you decide to bid on the space suit in the first place?

It was the only item not being bid on that I thought would be fun. It was a little impulsive, but I knew I could have some fun with it!


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Why did you decide to take the “everyday” angle with the images?

I was in a sense trying to project my inner childhood love for space. I wanted the character do what little kids do when they think they’re a super hero, they don’t take the costume off and everything revolves around it.

I just thought it’d be a fun way to express my love for space in a fun way.


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You mentioned you had a childhood love of space – what is it about space that appeals to you?

I think seeing how much has come from the space industry. How much it inspires us all. How important it is to continue to invest in it because someday our technology will save us from either ourselves (getting off the planet) or from a collision event.

I think about how such a small investment in our money in the 60’s STILL empowers and inspires people 45 years later.


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Has the space program met your childhood expectations?

Lately, no. We’ve seen massive budget cuts in NASA funding since the shuttle era ended. I want to see those numbers go way back up. I’m glad the private industry is doing some interesting things, but they have a way to go.

I’m very excited about the initiative Space-X is taking, but I sure hope they can deliver on their promises. It will be amazing to see re-usable spacecraft in the next decade.


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Where do you hope we are with space technology in 10, 20 years time?

Re-usable and affordable space travel. I hope that in the next 20 years, I can afford to take a trip into space (even if it’s really expensive) like people can buy first class plane tickets.


All images courtesy of Tim Dodd