Space agency looks for out of this world food solutions

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are turning to Canadians for help in figuring out how to keep people alive during long future space flights to Mars and beyond. 

The two organizations have come together with national food and agri-tech accelerator Bioenterprise and its Quebec counterpart ZoneAgTech to launch an exceptional call for innovation – the Deep Space Food Challenge.

Why it matters: Innovations to nourish human life during space travel could help tackle food insecurity challenges across the earth-based food chain.

The Deep Space Food Challenge is being run concurrently in Canada and the United States, with total prize money of up to $1.08 million available to innovators participating in Canada’s three-stage competition. 

“This is a unique collaboration between the Canadian Space Agency and NASA, who have come together around food for growth and space exploration,” explains Clélia Cothier, project manager for the Challenge and a Challenge Prize Fellow with CSA and Impact Canada. 

Challenge participants must create novel food production technologies or systems that use minimal inputs to produce safe, nutritious, and tasty food for long-duration space missions and that might also have applications on Earth. 

“The junction of space and earth is what we are interested in,” says Cothier.

CSA is active in various space programs, including the International Space Station, Mars missions and the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program. Part of the 2019 Canadian Space Strategy includes developing space technology for low mass, low energy and low waste systems that can also be harnessed to solve everyday challenges for Canadians, especially in remote and northern communities. 

“The vision is that by mid-2030, Canada will have sought-after food production capabilities for long human space flight,” says Matthew Bamsey, senior engineer with CSA. “We hope this challenge will help get us there.” 

Currently, notes Bamsey, astronauts spend six months at a time on the International Space Station, and re-supply is comparatively simple due to its proximity to Earth. Longer, further missions, though, won’t have that luxury and will need to make or bring their food supply. 

Winning space food solutions will need to be nutritious enough to keep astronauts healthy, easy to use so food preparation doesn’t take up a lot of time, and tasty and variable to help astronauts avoid menu fatigue. Water and power on space flights are limited, and food must be reliable, stable and safe so that availability or quality issues don’t threaten astronaut survival.

Food is just as important on Earth, according to CSA exploration scientist Mathieu Tremblay, who says space food solutions can have benefits in urban, rural, remote or harsh environments across the country. 

“Degradation of soil, food deserts in cities, population growth and disasters that can disrupt supply chains all drive the need for innovative food production that lowers costs and uses fewer inputs,” Tremblay says. “Some of these new solutions might allow us to help people faster when we face disasters, for example.” 

The Naurvik Initiative is a wind and solar-powered greenhouse and research station made from converted shipping containers in the tiny Nunavut community of Gjoa Haven. According to Tremblay, it could be a potential test site for technology that could be useful to produce food on the Moon and Mars one day. 

The challenge is open to Canadian-based businesses, not-for-profits, Indigenous organizations, post-secondary institutions, and individuals; the deadline to participate is July 30, 2021. Up to 10 of the most-promising concepts will each receive $30,000 for the second phase of the challenge, where they will have to build a prototype of their solution and provide food samples they’ve produced. 

In Fall 2022, up to four participants will be named finalists and receive $100,000 each to grow and scale their solutions. The grand prize winner will be announced in spring 2024 and receive $380,000. 

Bioenterprise and ZoneAgTech are helping to spread the word about the challenge across the national food and agri-tech scene. 

“The outcome of the challenge and what we are looking for might require teams of companies, and we believe some beautiful collaborations could be born between Canadian innovators,” says Bioenterprise Strategic Communications Manager Aaron Misener.