Specialist: Dr Michaela Musilova, PRIMA Crew Commander.
Future manned missions to Mars are planned for as early as the 2030s. However, the amount of equipment, food and all other life support systems will be very limited for the long duration space missions. Therefore, it will be necessary to ensure an independence from terrestrial resources, particularly for the potential long-term colonisation of Mars. The hydroponic growth of plants has been suggested as a means to ensure a constant supply of nutritious food in sufficient quantities to a crew on long duration space missions. Also, this type of plant growth can rapidly increase in exploitable biomass, without excessive demands on space, and it is a source of oxygen for the crew.
Current research in this field is focused on optimizing the hydroponic cultivation of plants, as the balanced nutrient uptake by plants is a fundamental condition for a successful production of plant biomass in the highest quality and volume. Furthermore, increased concentrations of some elements are dangerous for terrestrial organisms, for instance: cadmium and other metals (e.g. lead, mercury and copper) or metalloids (e.g. arsenic and selenium). Their bioaccumulation can result in very serious health risks. Hence, the automatic detection and monitoring of the concentrations of these elements, in the plant soils, is vital to protect the health of future crews.
The project MARSELECTRO has thus been prepared for the MDRS GreenHab to perform microelectrochemical measurements of heavy metal ions in the nutrient solutions of the GreenHab plants. It is a collaborative project with SOSA and researchers from the Mendel University in the Czech Republic. The aim of the project is to optimize the hydroponic cultivation of plants through the automated monitoring of nutrients, in the nutrient solutions of hydroponically grown maize under simulated Martian conditions, using a specially-made electrochemical device. The design of the device is based on the assumption that the plants receive metal ions from nutrient solutions during their growth, which leads to a decrease in the concentration of these ions in the measured solution in real time. Moreover, the device is fully-automatic, small and has been developed for simple and easy use by trained personnel. Control experiments have already been successfully performed at the Mendel University and have led to a number of academic publications. Therefore, there is a very high potential for several academic publications to result from this research at MDRS and generally to improve the cultivation techniques in the GreenHab.
● “Space food” or food for extreme conditions
A practical way of eating is the key to long-term expeditions in extreme conditions on the ground and in future long-duration missions in space. Food will have to be compact (for easy transportation), full of the most important nutrients (for maintaining good crew health and performance), but also diverse for all the different human senses. Indeed, recent studies simulating long-term space travel have shown that non-diverse and sensory-poor diet is a significant source of psychosocial stress. Hence, a project focusing on food for extreme conditions (nicknamed “space food”) has been prepared by SOSA and the Slovak Institute for Food Research. These products will be designed to be easily storable, concentrated, nutritious, but also varied. The second part of the project will focus on the “shelf life” and durability of these products in extreme environments. In particular, the effects of the different extreme conditions (e.g. varying temperatures) on the food will be studied for health and safety reasons.
The aim of the work at MDRS is to monitor the changes in the quality of the space food products and their nutritional content, rather than to test the products on the crew. For instance, a few of the products will contain starter cultures and probiotics, which are likely to evolve over time before, during and after the mission. In particular, the varying temperatures in the Utah desert are probably going to affect these food items. Changes in the quality of antioxidants in the food will also be an integral part of the analyses of the space food. The results from the studies at MDRS could then be compared to results from other expeditions, which are planned as part of this project (for example an expedition to Greenland in 2015, Svalbard in 2016 and potentially a few Martian analogue environments in Israel). Moreover, the products will also be tested high up in the atmosphere (~40 km) using stratospheric balloons. These tests will focus primarily on the effects of radiation and temperature on the products. Ultimately, the results of these experiments will be written up as academic publications, the data will be applied to the industry (we already have sports teams and the Slovak Ministry of Defence interested in purchasing these products) and could be used in future simulated and potentially real space missions.