NASA can send robots to Mars, no problem. But if it’s ever going to put humans on the planet, the space agency must figure out how to feed them during a years-long mission. The agency has funded research for what could be the ultimate nerd solution: a 3-D printer that creates entrees or desserts at the touch of a button.
Yes, it’s another case of life imitating “Star Trek.” In this case, the creators hope there is an application beyond deep-space pizza parties. The technology could also be used to feed hungry populations on Earth.
Texas-based Systems and Materials Research (SMRC) has been selected for a $125,000 grant from NASA to develop a 3-D printer that will create “nutritious and flavorful” food suitable for astronauts, according to the company’s proposal. Using a “digital recipe,” the printers will combine powders to produce food that has the structure and texture of real food, including its odors.
The project — the details of which NASA plans to finalize this week — was presented at the Humans 2 Mars Summit this month. At the presentation, Anjan Contractor, an engineer at SMRC and the project manager, explained how the idea originated: He had used a 3-D printer to print chocolate for his wife.
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A space-food printer doesn’t exist; it’s still a concept, which the company hopes to develop by the end of the year using NASA’s grant money.
The space agency’s current astro-food system “is not adequate in nutrition or acceptability through the five-year shelf life required for a mission to Mars, or other long-duration missions,” NASA spokesman David Steitz said in an email.
Astronauts carry prepackaged food similar to, the meals ready to eat, or MREs, consumed by the military. The preparations are short on flavor and heavy on processing, which tends to “degrade the micronutrients in the foods,” Steitz said.
There also isn’t much choice or variety, since all combinations of food are predetermined. That can take on big significance after a year or three cooped up in a small metal capsule.
In its proposal, the company said 3-D printed food could be tailored to each astronaut’s nutritional needs, improving health and, maybe more importantly, alleviating boredom.
One of the first goals for SMRC’s printer: the humble pizza. It was chosen because it contains a variety of nutrients and flavors, said David Irvin, director of research at SMRC.
More importantly, a pizza is made up of layers, a key principle used in 3-D printing technology.
Such printers, which have seen a surge of popularity lately, build a three-dimensional object by adding successive layers of material millions of times over according to a digital blueprint. Hobbyists have been using them to make everything from plastic toys to functioning guns.
In SMRC’s proposal, all the nutrients for a meal — such as protein and carbohydrates — would be stored in powdered form in cartridges.
When an astronaut chooses a recipe, all the necessary ingredients would be deployed into a mixing chamber, where they would be blended with water and oil.
The mixture would be heated and sprayed onto a heated base.
Layer by layer, the food would form on the base, until it is ready, hot and fresh from the “oven.”
“The pizza is actually just a way to demonstrate something solid at the bottom, something doughy in the middle and something meatlike at the top,” Irvin said.