7 arguments for growing plants and insects as sources for fresh food in space, the moon and Mars. Note: I briefly collaborated with an Italian team to help them out on their project. But mostly I worked on my own project. My location in Seattle didn't have anyone else who was interested in the food challenge, but my heart was set on it since I study nutrition. I'm not an engineer, but I do research food-related issues. That's how I ended up tackling this project solo.

This project is solving the Growing Food for a Martian Table challenge.


The Case for Fresh Food in Space, the Moon & Mars (or, Why the Future of Space Food is Crawling with Freshness!)

#1) It's already set in motion! First plant grown specifically for consumption will go up tomorrow: Monday, April 14, 2014! http://www.nasa.gov/content/veggie-experiment-launching-to-station-aboard-spacex-cargo-craft/#.U0sQTfldWSo

But if you still need more convincing...

2) Small area needed for such a big payoff

A vertical garden along the walls of the spaceship/ space colony structures that need not take up much space

An article published in 2007 in a Russian journal tested a greenhouse design (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18672522): "Dimensions of the greenhouse are 540 x 590 x 400 mm, power demand is 0.25 kW, and the Plant chamber volume is about 0.09 m3. 'Phytoconveyor" has a planting unit with six cylindrical root modules. The total illuminated crop area is about 0.4 m2. The lighting unit consists of red (660 nm) and blue (470 nm) light-emitting diodes on the inner surface of a spiral cylinder coaxial with the roots module unit that generate the photon flux density 350 micromol x M(-2) x s(-1) at a distance of 4 cm. Each root module has a porous tube wrapped up in a fiber substrate with ion-exchange resins and is covered with a lightproof plastic with seed slits. The "Phytoconveyor" design includes a programmable reverse watering system. Given the 24-hr light period, the laboratory model of "Phytoconveyor" can produce up to 300 gram of fresh greens every 4-5 days"

Citation: Berkovich IuA, Erokhin AN, Krivobok NM, Smolianina SO, Baranov AV, Shanturin NA, Droniaev VP, Radostin AV, Trofimov IuV, Sivenkov VK. [Prototype of space vitamin greenhouse "Phytoconveyor"]. Aviakosm Ekolog Med. 2007 Jan-Feb;41(1):51-5. Russian. PubMed PMID: 18672522.

Not only are the plants food for the body, they're also food for the soul, making a more beautiful, psychologically pleasing environment for the astronauts for a positive mental health impact

3) The payoff is big, not just figuratively but literally: There's cost reduction potential:

It costs roughly $10,000 per pound to send food to the ISS (http://modernfarmer.com/2013/09/starship-salad-bar/). So why send it when you can grow most of what you need yourself (achieving better product & reaping benefits from the very process to boot)?

4) Astronaut demand for improved quality of life

Supply shuttles carry such limited fresh produce that astronauts devour it almost immediately (http://modernfarmer.com/2013/09/starship-salad-bar/) Growing & harvesting plants & raising insects within the ISS will soon begin to pay for itself in $ and astronaut satisfaction and well-being.

5) Plants produce oxygen, reduce CO2

Risk of eye damage in astronauts linked to elevated CO2

A bit of background:

Researchers working to understand what's causing vision issues in astronauts. Elevated levels of carbon dioxide found within the space station may be a significant factor in the VIIP phenomenon since high CO2 concentrations are known to increase production of cerebrospinal fluid and dilate blood vessels in the brain.(http://www.space.com/25392-manned-mars-mission-astronaut-vision.html)

Role of plants would be to Augment (vs. Eliminate) current process of O2 generation/CO2 reduction

More detailed background:

The space shuttle dumps O2 from the cryogenic tank for crew use. The oxygen generator system that will soon be on board the ISS will make use of electrolysis (the reverse process of fuel cell reaction) by combining water and electricity to reclaim hydrogen and oxygen (2H2O + electricity → 2H2 + O2)

The carbon dioxide removal system (CDRA) on the ISS works to remove CO2 from the cabin air and dump it overboard, allowing for an environmentally safe crew cabin.

In the future, collected and concentrated CO2 will feed the Sabatier Reaction. Carbon dioxide removal involves the use of a synthetic rock called zeolite (also known as a molecular sieve). Cabin fans blow air through the zeolite and CO2 and water stick to it.

Mars has a 95% atmosphere CO2 concentration so there will be an abundant supply for both Sabatier water reclamation and for photosynthesis. NASA has determined that it is currently not cost effective to grow enough plants aboard the ISS to photosynthetically reclaim oxygen (costs mostly related to lighting and air conditioning but research should be conducted on how to reduce those costs), but plants will still be crucial to the survival of future Mars explorers - they should be as self-sustaining as possible (http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/146558main_RecyclingEDA(final)%204_10_06.pdf)

Plants can lessen the need to store/dump/filter hazardous gasses both before & after the Sabitier Reaction and electrolysis are implemented

Plants can help rid the air of many types of toxic gasses

NASA conducted a 2 year study and concluded:

Philodendron, spider plant and the golden pothos were labeled the most effective in removing formaldehyde molecules. Flowering plants such as gerbera daisy and chrysanthemums were rated superior in removing benzene from the chamber atmosphere. Other good performers are Dracaena Massangeana, Spathiphyllum, and Golden Pothos. “Plants take substances out of the air through the tiny openings in their leaves and research has determined that plant leaves, roots and soil bacteria are all important in removing trace levels of toxic vapors”. "A living air cleaner is created by combining activated carbon and a fan with a potted plant. The roots of the plant grow right in the carbon and slowly degrade the chemicals absorbed there" (http://www.zone10.com/nasa-study-house-plants-clean-air.html)

6) Bugs are the secret weapon!

AKA Insects are Fresh & Nutritious too:

Insects are varied (> 1,900 different types eaten worldwide) with different nutritional profiles but all are a good - often great - source of complete, bio-available protein and vitamin B12 (some people do not easily absorb supplements and eating B12 is much nicer than B12 via sharp needles)

Adds much needed variety to astronaut's diets - most would probably rather eat even a live cricket/worm/spider rather than another dry protein ration

No issues with soy allergy/sensitivity or other food allergies/sensitivities - unlike plant matter, insects are also energy dense so astronauts can fill up on nutrient dense insects vs. relatively nutrient-poor grain-based rations enriched with nutrients via artificial means

A source of "Good FAT" (with essential fatty acids like Omega-3s) that will also aid in absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K

Silkworms may be good Space/Mars & Lunar Colony Food candidates: they are rich in not only protein but also minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium and sodium as well as vitamins B1, B2, and B3 (http://www.examiner.com/article/nutritional-content-of-silkworm-pupae-bombyx-mori)

Looking specifically at the Black Slodier Fly:

"Prepupae are composed of 42% crude protein, 35% fat (Sheppard et al. 1994), and contain essential amino acids. If a source such as fish offal is included in their diet the prepupae can accumulate significant levels of omega-3 and essential unsaturated fatty acids such as linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) (St- Hilaire et al. 2007). When dried for use as feedstuff, the prepupae have an estimated value comparable to soybean or meat and bone meal. Their value as a product might be higher if they were to be used live as a special feed type, or if they were marketed to promote their other unique qualities such as essential fatty acids and chitin (Sheppard et al. 1994; Tomberlin et al. 2002b)" http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3029228/pdf/031.010.20201.pdf

Black soldier flies can be grown under artificial light. In a recent experiment: "Adults in the quartz-iodine lamp treatment had a mating rate of 61% of those in the sunlight control... Egg hatch for the quartz-iodine lamp and sunlight treatments occurred in approximately 4 days, and the hatch rate was similar between these two treatments. Larval and pupal development under these treatments required approximately 18 and 15 days at 28°C, respectively" Citation: Zhang J, Huang L, He J, Tomberlin JK, Li J, Lei C, Sun M, Liu Z, Yu Z. An artificial light source influences mating and oviposition of black soldier flies, Hermetia illucens. J Insect Sci. 2010;10:202. doi: 10.1673/031.010.20201.

Even bees can live in a greenhouse and pollinate plants!

"...honey bees can be successfully managed for greenhouse tomato pollination in both screened and unscreened greenhouses if the foraging force is maintained by replacing colonies every 3 wk" Citation: Sabara HA, Winston ML. Managing honey bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) for greenhouse tomato pollination. J Econ Entomol. 2003 Jun;96(3):547-54.

Space.com article has a great overview for the case for insects in space or on a colony like Mars: http://www.space.com/25374-mars-grasshopper-cuisine.html

An aside: More research needed on whether the gut microbiome is better supported via diet primarily based in fresh plant foods & insects vs. dry rations & supplements

Between fresh plants (veggies, berries, fruit?) and various species of insects, ALL nutrient needs of astronauts can be met

7) Worried about food safety in space? Never fear! Multiple solutions are "ripe" for further R&D

Assumption: volatile compound or other detectors will be essential, especially since astronauts tend to lose their sense of smell

The candidates:

1) It's the Rheo Thing: A Great New Sensor to Detect Food Spoilage @ http://www.rheothing.com/2011/11/great-new-sensor-to-detect-food.html

2) http://www.foodqualitynews.com/Innovation/Detecting-food-spoilage-with-optical-sensor

3) Tao, H., Brenckle, M. A., Yang, M., Zhang, J., Liu, M., Siebert, S. M., Averitt, R. D., Mannoor, M. S., McAlpine, M. C., Rogers, J. A., Kaplan, D. L. and Omenetto, F. G. (2012), Silk-Based Conformal, Adhesive, Edible Food Sensors. Adv. Mater., 24: 1067–1072. doi: 10.1002/adma.201103814 Abstract: An array of passive metamaterial antennas fabricated on all protein-based silk substrates were conformally transferred and adhered to the surface of an apple. This process allows the opportunity for intimate contact of micro- and nanostructures that can probe, and accordingly monitor changes in, their surrounding environment. This provides in situ monitoring of food quality. It is to be noted that this type of sensor consists of all edible and biodegradable components, holding utility and potential relevance for healthcare and food/consumer products and markets.

4) http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2012/06/litmus-paper-food-spoilage Description: "sequences of oligodeoxyfluorosides (ODF; fluorophores attached to a DNA backbone), whose fluorescent response upon UV excitation changes colour in the presence of gaseous analytes produced by bacteria or mould. In addition, the dyes can be printed on paper using commercial inkjet printers, which would give them the ease of use and widespread applicability of litmus paper"

5) http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070813104115.htm "A polymer material that raises a red flag, changing color in the presence biogenic amines, compounds produced by the bacterial decay of food proteins. In laboratory tests, the polymer identified and distinguished between 22 different kinds of key food-spoilage amines with 97 percent accuracy. Researchers also used the polymer to check the freshness of a tuna by detecting the amount of amines present in the sample. "The sensitivity of the described assay is better than the typical mammalian sense of smell and is able to detect this nonvolatile amine at hazardous levels before the fish would begin to smell rancid," the report states. The approach also shows promise for detecting spoilage in other food types, it adds. The article "A Food Freshness Sensor Using the Multistate Response from Analyte-Induced Aggregation of a Cross-Reactive Poly(thiophene)" is in the Aug. 16 2007 issue of ACS' Organic Letters

Project Information

License: MIT license (MIT)

Source Code/Project URL: https://spaceappsseattle.hackpad.com/The-Case-for-Fresh-Food-in-Space-the-Moon-Mars-yRpaCdkHG9w


Original (Better Quality) Video on Popcorn (Mozilla) - https://amusingmarina.makes.org/popcorn/1xwe
Youtube link again, in case the short URL doesn't work - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIFJa6YKB28&feature=youtu.be


  • Marina Mednik-Vaksman