The Deep Space Food Challenge is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between Nasa and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) focused on future food systems for missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.
The multi-phase competition that began in January 2021 invited students, chefs, small businesses, and others to ideate novel food technology designs to sustain astronauts in space for months, or even years at a time.
The second phase of the competition began in January this year and the results will be announced on 19 May, starting the final phase of the competition. "As we prepare for long-duration human spaceflight, food is essential not only for nutrition but also familiarity and comfort on long voyages and in isolated environments," said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for Nasa's Space Technology Mission Directorate, in a statement by US space agency.
The challenge aims to identify food production technologies that can help fill gaps in available food for a crew of four for a three-year round-trip mission with no resupply, improve food accessibility on Earth – specifically in remote and harsh environments – produce the highest possible amount of food from minimal resources while generating minimal waste, and create diverse, nutritious, and palatable foods that require little processing time, according to the official Deep Space Food Challenge website.
In Phase 1, interested participants from the US competed for a prize purse of up to $500,000 to develop their technology. The Canadian Space Agency hosts a parallel competition with a separate application and judging process, as well as its own prize purse, for the Canadian teams, according to Nasa.
Qualifying teams from other countries can compete but they will not be eligible for monetary prizes, according to the Deep Space Food Challenge website.
For Phase 2, 11 teams were selected from about 200 participating companies. Eight US teams were each given $20,000 in funding and three additional international teams were also recognised. The winning prize for this phase is up to $1,000,000.
“Phase 2 was kind of a kitchen-level demonstration,” Angela Herblet at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the project manager for the challenge said in a recent article published in the MIT Technology Review. “Phase 3 is going to challenge the teams to scale their technologies.”
Some of the qualifying innovations include InFynity (Chicago, Illinois) which used a fungi protein to prepare nutritious and delicious foods, Interstellar Lab (Merritt Island, Florida), which focuses on producing fresh microgreens, vegetables, mushrooms, and insects to provide micronutrients for long-term space missions, and Air Company (Brooklyn, New York), which developed a system that uses carbon dioxide exhaled by astronauts, combine it with hydrogen made with water electrolysis, to produce alcohol which is fed to an edible yeast to make proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, according to a statement by Nasa.
Talking about Air Company, Stafford Sheehan, co-founder and chief technology officer, said in the MIT Technology Review story, that although it sounds like magic, “when you see it actually operating, it’s much more simple. We’re taking CO2, combining it with water and electricity, and making proteins.”
The winners of the final phase will be announced in April 2024.