From insects to microalgae, the semi-finalists of the Canadian Deep Space Food Challenge are offering a range of ideas to sustainably feed astronauts of the future.
The joint NASA-Canadian Space Agency competition is looking to create food that will not only help astronauts, but may also benefit people in areas of food scarcity on Earth – which is an especially pressing problem giving the accelerating pace of global warming.
With NASA already having announced its recipients last month (more details below), further details about what is coming next in the food challenge will happen Monday (Nov. 15) at a press conference, which will disclose the next steps for the American teams.
But the Canadian semi-finalists are expected to go to a Phase 2, which will be a kitchen demonstration that will demonstrate their technologies at an equivalent of Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 4. NASA considers tested technologies that have completed TRL 5 ready for a prototype demonstration on either the ground, or in space, which would then achieve TRL 6 if completed.
Winners of Phase 2 (up to four) receive up to $100,000 in grant funding and a chance to pass to a Phase 3 of the competition. A full system demonstration will be made in fall 2022 under Phase 3 with further funding and possible non-monetary prizes, and then the grand prize winner will be selected in spring 2024.
Canada is one of several nations who have signed on to the Artemis Accords with NASA to eventually put humans on the moon. Canada has committed to delivering the MDA-led Canadarm3 robotic arm to the planned Gateway space station, and in return will receive a seat on the Artemis II moon-orbiting mission that is currently set for no earlier than May 2024. That deadline is a recent adjustment from September 2023, as will be explained in a moment.
Canadian companies and universities are participating through a CSA program called Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP), which aims to put at least some of this lunar technology on the Moon in the coming years. Canada also plans to launch a lunar microrover no earlier than 2026.
Last week, NASA disclosed it would delay the Artemis III landing by at least one year, to 2025 from a planned 2024 deadline. In a press conference, the agency said that this change was due to factors such as complicated technology development, the coronavirus pandemic and regulatory and now-overturned regulatory and legal protests surrounding the Human Landing System contract award to SpaceX earlier this year.
Briefly, here are some details about each of the Deep Space Food Challenge prize recipients in Canada. Note that most of the recipients have released few details about their systems as the prize is still ongoing and they also are targeting eventual contracts with space authorities.
Canadian Deep Space Food Challenger Phase 1 winners
Canacompost Systems – The Outpost: Space Composting With Black Soldier Flies
This system uses black soldier flies, which are common in the Americas and Europe, to compost organic material in a system described as “automated.” Ideally this would mean a minimum of intervention from astronauts, who would be trying to focus on science and more urgent maintenance during long-term space missions.
McGill University / McGill Advanced bio-Regenerative Toolkit for Long Excursion Trips (MARTLET) – 2 entries
- Cricket Rearing, Collection, and Transformation System: This system will start astronauts with a few hundred eggs of crickets, with the aim of producing a protein-rich source of food given the ultimate result would be tens of thousands of crickets a month. The crickets, incidentally, would be kept entirely separate from astronaut living quarters using tools such as filters, vacuum systems and UVC lamps.
- InSpira Photobioreactor: The goal of this system is to cultivate microalgae in cartridge vessels. The output would be an “edible gel” that can either be eaten on its own, or used to flavour other food products, McGill says. A harvesting and processing unit would be the technology that transforms the microalgae to the gel.
AlgaBloom International Ltd. – A Programmable Microalgae Cultivation Platform for Sustainable Food Production in Space
This is another microalgae system that will use “biofilm-based growth” to create foods that could include pastes, pastas, flakes and pastes. It also may be able to use urination, digestion and respiration by the microalge to create feedstocks for bioproduction. If this works, the makers tout this as a closed-sustainable-loop system able to feed astronauts with a minimum of inputs.
University of Waterloo – Hydrogel Photobioreactors for Cultivation of Food and Life Support
Deep Food Space Challenge and university materials explain this system as an algae rack that uses a minimum of water and energy usage, which would make it suitable for arid environments. The goal, the team said on the university website, is to create a “low-cost solution” combining ideas in biochemical engineering, with modern design and materials.
Ecoation Innovative Solutions Inc. – CANGrow Modular Indoor Food Production System
Much like the current plant studies on the International Space Station, this system aims to grow a variety of edible fruits and vegetables for astronauts to eat: strawberries, cherry tomatoes, two root vegetables, microgreens, four unique culinary herbs, mini-head lettuce, an algae superfood, and a mycelial meat substitute nicknamed “space bacon.” The system is described as a modular polyculture (or many types of food) production system, although few details about it are described beyond saying it has “novel technologies.”
University of Guelph – Canada – Growth Options for Outer Space Environments (GOOSE)
This is described as a plant-growth chamber that is also expected to produce fruits, vegetables and mushrooms. It contains environment control technology with the aim to achieve “homogeneous conditions”, which would in turn produce high-density crops for food production.
PeaPod Technologies Inc.
Despite the name, the chamber described here is meant to grow “any crop” and also to collect data via automation to improve the yield of the food over time. The chamber is described as both extendable and modular, allowing the astronauts to customize it to the food and mission requirements. Metrics that can be controlled include air thermoregulation, humidification, dehumidification, lighting, and aeroponics.
Nobelgen Inc. – SEuPS – Space Euglena Production System
This will take advantage of a freshwater species of single-celled alga known as Euglena gracilis, whose inherent capabilities will assist with transforming human waste into eventual feedstocks or food, the team says. The system will include photosynthesis-like capabilities (since that is how Euglena operates on Earth) along with energy efficient bioreactors, all controlled with AI.
Concordia University – AstroYeast Microfarm: Space-adapted Nutrient and Flavour Factory
Concordia is developing a yeast stain optimized for space, which it calls AstroYeast. University materials indicate that AstroYeast is being developed for factors such as microgravity and in the future, to include extra nutrients such as vitamin A or ideal flavour profiles for astronauts. The yeast will be delivered in an automated bioreactor system.
NASA Deep Space Food Challenge winners
NASA also announced its winners on Oct. 21, with each receiving $25,000 USD ($31,300 CAD). The full list of recipients, in alphabetical order, are:
- Astra Gastronomy of San Francisco, California
- BeeHex of Columbus, Ohio
- BigRedBites of Ithaca, New York
- Bistromathic of Austin, Texas
- Cosmic Eats of Cary, North Carolina
- Deep Space Entomoculture of Somerville, Massachusetts
- Far Out Foods of St. Paul, Minnesota
- Hefvin of Bethesda, Maryland
- Interstellar Lab of Los Angeles
- Kernel Deltech USA of Cape Canaveral, Florida
- Mission: Space Food of Mountain View, California
- Nolux of Riverside, California
- Project MIDGE of La Crescenta-Montrose, California
- RADICLE-X of Brooklyn, New York
- SIRONA NOMs of Golden, Colorado
- Space Bread of Hawthorne, Florida
- Space Lab Café of Boulder, Colorado
- µBites of Carbondale, Illinois
NASA and CSA also recognized a set of international entrants on Oct. 21, without monetary prizes attached. The entrants are:
- ALSEC Alimentos Secos SAS of Antioquia, Colombia
- Ambar of Bucaramanga, Colombia
- Electric Cow of Germany
- Enigma of the Cosmos of Écully, France and Brunswick, Australia
- JPWORKS SRL of Milan, Italy
- KEETA of Bangkok, Thailand
- LTCOP of Piracicaba, Brazil
- Natufia X Edama of Thuwal, Saudi Arabia
- Solar Foods of Lappeenranta, Finland
- π of Ghaziabad, India
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