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posted by Fnord666 on Wednesday June 03 2020, @07:17PM   Printer-friendly
from the lots-of-MREs dept.

How to make the food and water Mars-bound astronauts will need for their mission:

If we ever intend to send crewed missions to deep-space locations, then we need to come up with solutions for keeping the crews supplied. For astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), who regularly receive resupply missions from Earth, this is not an issue. But for missions traveling to destinations like Mars and beyond, self-sufficiency is the name of the game.

This is the idea behind projects like BIOWYSE and TIME SCALE, which are being developed by the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Space (CIRiS) in Norway. These two systems are all about providing astronauts with a sustainable and renewable supply of drinking water and plant food. In so doing, they address two of the most important needs of humans performing long-duration missions that will take them far from home.

[...] In short, the ISS relies on costly resupply missions to provide 20% of its water and all of its food. But if and when astronauts establish outposts on the moon and Mars, this may not be an option. While sending supplies to the moon can be done in three days, the need to do so regularly will make the cost of sending food and water prohibitive. Meanwhile, it takes eight months for spacecraft to reach Mars, which is totally impractical.

So it is little wonder that the proposed mission architectures for the moon and Mars include in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), in which astronauts will use local resources to be as self-sufficient as possible. Ice on the lunar and Martian surfaces, a prime example, will be harvested to provide drinking and irrigation water. But missions to deep-space locations will not have this option while they are in transit.

[...] Technologies like these will be crucial when it comes time to establish a human presence on the moon, on Mars, and for the sake of deep-space missions. In the coming years, NASA plans to make the long-awaited return to the moon with Project Artemis, which will be the first step in the creation of what they envision as a program for "sustainable lunar exploration."

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 03 2020, @08:32PM (3 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 03 2020, @08:32PM (#1002929)

    Mealworms are pretty simple, but they require food. I think the agricultural infrastructure needs to be in place before you can start with any form of livestock. Probably easier/cheaper to initially send several years worth of food rather than attempt to bootstrap production from nothing.

  • (Score: 3, Informative) by Immerman on Thursday June 04 2020, @05:41AM (2 children)

    by Immerman (3985) on Thursday June 04 2020, @05:41AM (#1003083)

    Algae and other microbial feedstock is an obvious solution. On Earth single-celled organisms outmassall other life by something like 30:1, with the majority being various algae. Pretty much all the complex life on Earth feeds on microbes - humans can't even digest most of our food directly, instead we feed off the symbiotic microbes in our gut that feed off the food we eat.

    Microbial farming for the baseline also has a huge advantage in resiliency - if something happens to 90% of your potato crop, then you'd better hope you have enough food stashed away to last you through a fresh growing season. Wipe out 90% of your algae crop though, and you can mulch their remains and be back to full production within a few days thanks to its incredible exponential growth rate rate.

    NASA did quite a bit of research on hydrogen-eating microbes as a food source (in the... 70s?), and there's currently a company whose name I forget looking to put that research to use right here on earth to grow cheap, low impact microbial "flour", "protein powder", "pseudo-palm oil", sugar, and other such basic ingredients.

    And hey, lets throw in Impossible Foods yeast-based "blood" as well - it's not as nutritionally relevant, but that wonderful meaty flavor would make those algae-burgers a whole lot more satisfying.

    You likely still want to grow more complex plant and animal crops for variety, but microbial agriculture would give you resilient baseline production that can scale rapidly with demand.

    There's industrial applications as well: micro- and nano-cellulose can be algae-based, and have impressive mechanical properties and workability, in addition to being useful food additives. Nanocellulose in particular can be used to make something like "transparent aluminum" (though its water solubility makes it unsuitable for containing whales without some sort of waterproofing layer)

    It also has the potential at least to be grown using relatively low-tech solutions, with some scientists suggesting algae might be able to grow on the Martian surface with nothing more than a protective sheet laid on the surface to create a more hospitable microenvironment. Probably pretty challenging to clean that for human consumption, but could be a great way to grow fresh air, and even bio-mine the surface for trace elements to be introduced into the food farms. Unlike complex life, microorganism populations can be incredibly resistant to cosmic rays and other highly damaging radiation, by the simple expedient of not really caring if the cell next to them dies horribly.

    That also suggests another feature that could be incredibly useful for colonizing a new world: they can evolve very quickly, especially in an environment rich in mutation-inducing radiation. We could "genetically engineer" crops to be better suited to easily made environments by the simple expedient of constructing environmental gradients between where they thrive and where we'd like them to thrive, and let them figure out the details over the course of weeks or months, and thousands of their generations.

    • (Score: 2) by Muad'Dave on Thursday June 04 2020, @11:39AM (1 child)

      by Muad'Dave (1413) on Thursday June 04 2020, @11:39AM (#1003136)

      Now that SpaceX is in the mix, and since they're keen to use liquid methane as a fuel, why not use organisms that can convert methane to animal feed []? This one is aerobic, but there are anaerobic versions that wouldn't compete for breathable O2. They're generally known as methanotrophs [].

      • (Score: 2) by Immerman on Thursday June 04 2020, @01:56PM

        by Immerman (3985) on Thursday June 04 2020, @01:56PM (#1003185)

        Quite so. I've suggested those in the past, but I felt this post was getting a bit long-winded already. They also haven't benefited from the amount of R&D that's been put into the hydrogen-eaters, so are likely to be less practical and refined (aka nutritious and tasty) as a near-term solution. Besides, generating hydrogen relatively efficiently from either water or methane is pretty straightforward and efficient, though you do lose the redundancy of being able to turn your fuel stockpile into an emergency food supply even if your infrastructure is crippled.