A team from the University of Guelph is working on a way to grow fresh food on Mars.
Graduate students from the University of Guelph’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility, otherwise known as the CESRF, have advanced to the second stage of “The Deep Space Food Challenge.”
They are now one of 10 finalists, narrowed down from about 60, chosen in-part by former astronaut Chris Hadfield.
According to the Deep Space Food Challenge website “astronauts on the space station get food regularly launched to them.”
But it noted Mars is so much farther away, so launching food to the red planet is not an option.
The challenge is hosted by NASA and The Canadian Space Agency.
The winner will receive a large grant of CAD $380,000 and will be awarded to whoever has the best idea on how to grow fresh food in space.
University of Guelph’s CESRF director & professor, Mike Dixon said the challenge is important because, “food determines how far from earth we can go and how long we can stay.”
The U of Guelph team said faculty and students at the CESRF have been working on different projects that include growing food in sealed chambers for nearly 30 years
The challenge was open to the public, but the U of G team hopes decades of experience will give them an advantage over the competition.
“We are among the world’s leading research venues developing those technologies today,” Dixon added.
Fourth-year PhD student, Jared Stoochnoff who is nearing the end of his thesis, joined the Guelph team as a side project. Excited about what it could mean for evolution in space.
Dixon and Stoochnoff showed off large growth chambers, some that stand almost ten feet tall, and another only about six feet.
Food in the chambers are grown in earth like conditions.
“The benefit of them being sealed is you can manipulate the environment conditions, like the temperature, humidity, co2 concentration, light intensity,” Stoochnoff said.
The current growth chambers are just examples of separate research conducted by the CESRF.
Their real plans submitted to NASA and the CSA are top secret.
U of G professor Thomas Graham co-chairs the challenge selection jury alongside Hadfield.
When asked if the winning design will actually be sent to space, Graham explained “it will be used to become further developed, and will become a component of, for lack of a better description, a green house on the moon.”
The team has already provided light and the color of light can significantly impact growth patterns and nutritional quality.
Dixon showed off a set of three fully grown heads of lettuce. Each grown from identical seeds, lit with different colours. White, red and blue.
“Not only do they look different, size and colour, they taste different.” Dixon said.
He went onto explain that each also ended up containing different values of certain nutritional qualities.
Contestants will be judged on the quality of nutrition their products can produce.
“It’s going to be a nice balanced diet for our future astronauts,” Stoochnoff said.
The winning project will be one that’s able to grow vegetables, herbs and starches, while also disinfecting and recycling the water used for the plants.
In space, resources like water are extremely limited and must be used carefully.
“All this technology being developed for the moon is immediately transferable to the earth,” Graham said.
Dixon agreed, “Canada’s north is classified as a really harsh environment. And let’s face it, it’s really cold and its really dark,”
Graham noted if residents of northern Canada could grow vegetables inside at home themselves, it could help solve food insecurity and The CSA does have a duo mission in terms of this challenge.
“The final prototype that will be built, will be about the size of a fridge,” Stoochnoff said.
Now that the U of G team have advanced to the second stage of the challenge, they must build the prototype.
“The next phase is to actually provide the technology that we came up with,” Stoochnoff added.
The grand prize winner will be announced in Spring 2024.