For the first astronauts to visit Mars, what to eat on their 3-year mission will be one of the most critical questions. It’s not just a matter of taste. According to one recent estimate, a crew of six would require an estimated 10,000 kilograms of food for the trip. NASA—which plans to send people to Mars within two decades—could stuff a spacecraft with prepackaged meals and launch additional supplies to the Red Planet in advance of the voyage home. But even that wouldn’t completely solve the problem.
Micronutrients, including many vitamins, break down over months and will need to be synthesized en route. And food isn’t just a source of calories, says Jennifer Fogarty, chief science officer at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at Baylor College of Medicine. Taste, texture, freshness, and other factors all play major roles in maintaining our well-being. Simple survival “is not the goal,” Fogarty says. Today’s preserved food system, she concludes, “is completely inadequate for a Mars mission.”
Robert Jinkerson, a chemical engineer at the University of California (UC), Riverside, thinks the answer is for astronauts to grow their own on-board garden—in the dark, with plant growth fueled by artificial nutrients rather than sunlight. It won’t be easy; after all, plants evolved for hundreds of millions of years to extract energy from sunlight. But Jinkerson believes it can be done by reawakening metabolic pathways plants already possess—the same ones that power the germination of seeds buried in the ground and then shut off once a seedling’s leaves start to reach for the Sun. In his vision of the future, electricity from solar panels could transform water and carbon dioxide (CO2) exhaled by a spacecraft’s crew into simple, energy-rich hydrocarbons that genetically modified plants could use to grow—even in the darkness of space or the dim light on Mars, which receives less than half as much sunlight as Earth.
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