Spirulina pasta and burgers: Future space meals are being prepared in Gembloux

How can we guarantee astronauts a diet that contains all the necessary nutritional inputs that are as appetizing as possible and adapted to the many limitations of the space environment? A complex equation currently being worked on by the Smart Gastronomy Lab (SGL) in Gembloux in the province of Namur, a research laboratory specializing in the food field, which has just entered into a partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA).

A promising ingredient

Before imagining and experimenting with recipes, Gembloux scientists first had to integrate a premise: at least 50% of the proteins in their preparations must come from spirulina, a microalgae that ESA envisages eventually cultivating aboard spacecraft: “The idea is to produce fresh proteins in the space shuttles themselves and therefore have these better quality products that can be directly converted into foods that are good in taste and health. ” explains Dorothée Goffin, Director of the Smart Gastronomy Lab.

In a corner of the laboratory, busy in front of an electric hob, Barbara, a French student, makes a hamburger based on lentils and spices, garnished with the inevitable spirulina. “The point of cooking it in the form of a hamburger is that it is something that already exists, it is important for the acceptance on the part of the astronauts. The goal is also to make it more pleasant because spirulina could be ingested raw in the form of a milkshake, but eating is not limited to its strictly nourishing dimension, astronauts are also researching taste enjoyment. ”

Eric Haubruge, professor at the University of Liège and co-founder of SGL, agrees: “We see it when fresh products arrive at the International Space Station, in the days to come there is greater motivation among astronauts. We know that there is a very close connection between diet and human behavior, hence the interest in being able to increase the proportion of Fresh food produced directly on site ”.

Adapt to spatial constraints

On the other side of the lab, Meriem, also a student from France, tumbles in front of a pot of boiling water. Inside, 400 milliliters of water, not one more or less. A probe was thrown into it and connected to a computer, which displays a series of graphs. “ISLANDnaa made this collection to calculate the energy. What you see on the screen is the electrical power as a function of time, a data that we will use to accurately calculate the energy costs of the entire production and preparation of the pasta. “

For if we can afford certain approximations when cooking pasta on solid ground, it is different in a demarcated place as in a space shuttle, where resources are particularly precious. The kitchen of the room is one of precision and sobriety, as Dorothée Goffin explains: “We want to use as little water as possible and as little energy as possible, and above all we want to recycle every time. It is e.g. astronauts’ urine, which feeds the microalgae, which will then be consumed by the same astronauts, and therefore we must be able to optimize everything at the level of the design of processes and products, this is something that must be taken into account “.

“There’s the problem with weight, we do not know how to carry tons of water” engages Eric Hausbruge, “Everything is based on economics and that abundance must be avoided. Everything must be calculated in relation to environmental inputs. We need to integrate these parameters when we need to develop our new foods. “

If the research in Gembloux will make it possible to add a stone to the great edifice of the conquest of space, the time is still far away where astronauts will prepare pasta dishes and grill spirulina burgers. “We will try to make prototypes of machines that will be able to prepare these products in space, but we are still far from validating these techniques.“recognizes Dorothée Goffin,”These are research horizons that are over decades to be able to integrate these technologies into a space shuttle“.

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