Aerospace & Defence

Potatoes on Mars - space technology rocketing upwards

30th September 2021
Joe Bush

Space. The final frontier, the first step in a journey (a new beginning), or a horrifying void matched only by your deep fear of the ocean? Whatever your feelings on space, technology has been steadily pushing forwards to take exploration further, faster, and foodier than ever before.

Space for seconds?

Many people are familiar with the concept of freeze-dried food for astronauts, from the exciting freeze-dried ice-cream to the more common freeze-dried fruits that can be seen in cereals such as Special K. Perfect for a novelty treat, or breakfast with a splash of milk, but flawed for long expeditions into the unknown.

It is extremely difficult to provide astronauts with any food that isn't super sterile, dried, long-life food. As a result, many astronauts experience weight loss on the missions, and in terms of long-term space travel, poor food quality is a major problem in terms of mental and physical health. Any student who has eaten pot noodles three meals a day for a month may be familiar with the issue.

Innovations such as little hydroponic systems for growing some green food are therefore extremely interesting developments for the industry. NASA has begun to implement research on using this method to grow crops in space; NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler, Ph.D. and colleagues have been studying ways to grow safe, fresh food crops efficiently off the Earth. Most recently, astronauts on the International Space Station harvested and ate a variety of red romaine lettuce that they activated and grew in a plant growth system called Veggie. Other vegetables Wheeler identifies as very promising for space agriculture include sweet potatoes, wheat, and soybeans.

It is not all about the veggies, though. Aleph Farms and Finless Foods recently used 3D printing technology to make cultured meat on the international space station. Whilst not quite Star Trek replicators, the innovation offers at least a little intrigue and ingenuity for astronauts, and a break from freeze dried food can make a huge nutritional difference. The mental health aspect of fresh and varied food is not to be underestimated and could be helped a long way by innovations such as these.

The vacuum of space - keeping space travel sanitary

Yes, astronauts do use a vacuum in the vacuum of space. Unlike on earth, dust and debris won't settle but may instead accumulate in air vents, so astronauts use vacuums to collect what they can. The issue of cleanliness in space runs far deeper than some dust and some crumbs, though, and this is where antimicrobial technology comes in.

In microgravity, the immune response is weakened, which calls for extra caution with cleanliness. Many infectious bacteria, on the other hand, have no such issues. In fact, some studies have shown that bacteria in space can survive drug concentrations that would prove fatal to them on earth. So, it comes as no surprise to learn that many astronauts have been struck down by infection while on their adventures.

In addition to the health concerns, high touch areas, waste disposal systems, and liquid-handling systems can be affected by biodegradation - the process by which organic substances are decomposed by micro-organisms. Biodegradation of materials on crewed spacecraft can cause disruption, loss of function, and lost crew time.

Biofilms - colonies of bacteria and single-cell organisms adhering to a surface - can occur in almost any environment on earth, and now space. In a small space such as a space shuttle or space station, with limited supplies and potentially years of travel before there is a chance to leave or access additional cleaning materials, this is an issue that must be carefully controlled.

Goldshield have developed coatings, which have been used by NASA and have shown 100% biofilm reduction. Goldshield have developed a water-based organosilane technology, consisting of a silane base and a quaternary ammonium compound. The formulation can be easily applied via a regular spray bottle. It can also be applied via electrostatic spraying, where 1 gallon can cover 5,000 sq ft, but outside of efficiency, electrostatic spraying is not necessary for application. 

Goldshield's antimicrobial technology has been proven in three clinical trials that have been published in the American Journal of Infection Control. One of the studies is a 9-month study where Goldshield's coating was applied to five high-touch points in 18 intensive care units. Through investigating over 60,000 cultures, it was determined that Goldshield could reduce bioburden by 3-4 log. IDTechEx were told that Goldshield has run the only study that shows direct correlation between the use of chemistry on surfaces with reductions in healthcare associated infections. For more detail on the latest and future developments in antimicrobial technology, see IDTechEx report 'Antimicrobial Technology Market 2021-2031'.

Aerogels

Aerogels are essential to certain space applications, though they have found markets down to earth in the 21st Century. Aerogels are created by removing liquid components from a gel while maintaining the gel structure. The resulting material provides very effective insulation whilst being incredibly lightweight - vital for a vehicle trying to resist gravity and blast into the freezing expanse of space.

The primary material for aerogels was originally silica, and these are still the most common type. The market leaders in silica aerogel blankets is Aspen Aerogel.

At very high temperatures the superior insulating properties of silica aerogel can start to become less effective. This is because the contribution from infrared radiation to heat transfer increases sharply, but the inclusion of an opacifier can help overcome this.

Polymer aerogels are a relatively new and rapidly emerging commercial product. Aerogel Technologies, Blueshift Materials, and BASF are key players in this field. Advantages typically include a greater degree of strength and flexibility and are manufactured as panels/tiles or thin films. This is in contrast to their equivalent silica products and comes off the back of a large amount of research by NASA and other academic institutes.

For more detail on the latest and future developments in aerogel technology, see IDTechEx report 'Aerogels 2021-2031: Technologies, Markets and Players'.

Dress like an astronaut

Oros Apparel provide 'NASA inspired' clothing, which initially started with a Lukla jacket in 2015. The proprietary SolarCore lining is leading the way in this technology, providing a good performance down to -50 ºC and breathability. Another key development here has been the use in PrimaLoft Gold. Other products previously released with embedded aerogel technology include:

  • Shiver Shield have released trousers and jackets.
  • Kenchen water-resistant suede jackets
  • Rocky S2V provision jacket.
  • Salomon include the Toundra snow boot.
  • Outdoor Research Gloves and boots

Want to eat like an astronaut, dress like an astronaut, clean your kitchen like an astronaut, and even insulate your car with aerogels? Then you are in luck. This space tech is touching down for terrestrial use in more and more applications.

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