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How will astronauts get food on Mars?

NASA is aiming to have humans en route to Mars by the 2030s — and working with college students to develop solutions for astronauts’ survival.

A round-trip mission between Earth and the Red Planet could take as long as three years. The goal of deep space exploration raises many issues — such as how will astronauts have enough food to eat for a potential years-long journey?

Matt Damon created his own food production system in The Martian, but student researchers at The Ohio State University say what they’re working on is much more realistic and could actually be implemented on deep space missions in the future.

Teams of Ohio State students are researching food production as part of NASA’s eXploration Systems and Habitation Academic Innovation Challenge, or X-Hab for short. For NASA, it’s a chance to tap into university expertise as the space agency looks to create better systems and technologies for its missions.

“If it works out, this could have some really big impacts,” said Sam Diamond, one of the project’s team leaders who’s studying food engineering.

Student holding seed packets over container, The Ohio State University
Project team members are testing the composted material to see if they can use it to grow new plants.
Student examining dirt in her hand, The Ohio State University
Ohio State student Rachel Windbigler sifts through the composted material during a team project meeting.
Student examining plant samples. The Ohio State University
Team member Gerard Braun checks the health of plants the team is growing.
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Students working on the X-Hab project meet regularly to check the progress of their experiments.
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Last year’s project team members got to visit NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to learn more about the X-Hab project.
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Team members learned firsthand from NASA scientists how their work could help the space agency.

Diamond’s team is taking a plant growth substrate (essentially the material in which the plant grows), running it through a composter and seeing if the composted substrate can grow new plants.

Another Ohio State student team is researching how to use a 3D printer to make a substrate on board a space vehicle that can grow plants, while another project involves developing a test kit to ensure that produce grown in space with the reused substrate is safe to eat.

“There is a food safety concern because the more times you reuse the material the microbial load increases,” said Peter Ling, an Ohio State associate professor in Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering who oversees the project along with colleague Jane Fife.

Students set up their own experiments in a lab on campus in Columbus, Ohio, where they conduct research that includes growing lettuce inside 3D printed material and extracting dirt from a composter.

“We have a lot of freedom in terms of our design and what kind of changes we want to make,” Diamond said.

Students work collaboratively with NASA scientists and engineers, who hope to one day implement the student research in support of longer and longer space missions.

“We are tapping into the creativity and innovation that's in academia,” said Tracy Gill, Technology Strategy manager at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Plants aren’t just food, but also sources of oxygen, potable water and are very important in terms of sustaining life for long-term space missions,” Ling said. “The plant production system is really a bioregenerative life support system for deep space travel.”