Food From Space: NASA’s 3D Pizza Printer

3DpizzaNASA has made some buzz with its announcement to print 3D pizza in space. And while this might sound like an awesome and appetizing use of the pioneering technology, it also has some pretty exciting implications for space exploration. For decades, astronauts have relied on freeze dried and thermostabilized food to meet their nutritional needs. But with 3D printing being considered, astronauts of the future could be using something akin to a replicator out of Star Trek.

Earlier this month, Quartz broke the news that NASA’s Systems & Materials Research Corporation received a $125,000 grant to spend six months building a prototype of a 3-D food printer- one that will be able to print out a tasty pizza before venturing on to other food items. According to his NASA proposal, the printer spits out starches, proteins, fats, texture, and structure, while the inkjet sprays on flavor, smell, and micronutrients.

3d-pizza_printerThe pizza printer is the brainchild of Anjan Contractor, a mechanical engineer at the Systems & Materials Research Corporation who has long worked on 3-D printing technologies. In an interview with Quartz, he explained the process:

It works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed, by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, “which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil,” says Contractor. Finally, the pizza is topped with the delicious-sounding “protein layer,” which could come from any source, including animals, milk or plants.

As already mentioned, astronauts currently rely on food that is freeze dried prepackaged so that it can be eaten in microgravity. Astronauts get supplies when necessary from the International Space Station, where cargo vehicles transport their “fresh” food. But future astronauts who go to more distant places, like Mars, won’t be able to resupply. And that’s where the Advanced Food Project really comes into play.

pizzaWhen considering missions to Mars and farther into space, multiple issues need to be addressed. Grace Douglas, an Advanced Food Technology Project scientist at NASA, explains what these are and how 3D food can address them:

This is the only food that the crew members will have, so it needs to maintain its nutrition content for the length of the mission, and it has to be acceptable. If they don’t want to eat it, they won’t eat enough… 3-D food printers are looking at providing powdered forms of ingredients, and these would not be processed ahead.

That’s a good thing: minimally processed food has more nutrients, and it’s tastier. It also allows for even more options than what’s available today. And to address another key problem – printing in microgravity – NASA already has the option of using some of the more advanced prototypes.

anti-grav3d2Consider the Mataerial, a recently-developed 3D printer that is capable of printing in zero-gravity. NASA is exploring other processing technologies outside of the 3-D printing realm as well. High-pressure processing, which uses high pressures with a low-heat treatment to sterilize foods, is one option. Another is microwave sterilization–a process that uses high-heat treatments for a shorter period of time.

These latter technologies would make fresh foods accessible by ensuring that they are perfectly sterile, thus removing the need for food that needs to be dried or processed in advance. While all three technologies are still in the early phases of development, Douglas and others expect that they will off the ground and running by the time a manned mission to Mars is being planned.

And space is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to printing food. Here on Earth, it is a potential solution for ending world hunger. But that’s another, very interesting story. Stay tuned for it…

In the meantime, watch this video of a 3-D printer creating chocolate:


New Anthology Sample!

gliese 581Hi folks. Life has been pretty busy and distracting of late, but after a few busy weeks I find myself with some time on my hands once again the freedom with which to write. And so I have, specifically on my second contribution to the Yuva Anthology – the Prologue known as “The Torch”. Though the story is not yet complete, I am finally reaching the climax of the tale, where the main character Magid Muktari is arriving to meet his benefactor and the man who intends to make sure his dream of exoplanet colonization becomes a reality.

But of course, there is still the question of terms to consider, some details that need to be ironed out, and an explanation or two as to why this is all happening. But I won’t bore you with a big summation. Instead, I present you with the latest installments in the story where Muktari takes his first commercial flight into space and doesn’t much enjoy it! Relying on research I’ve been doing on Virgin Galactic, the “Skylon” engine, and other sources, this is basically my take on what commercial space flight will look like in the near future.

What’s more, the chapter includes some ideas on the subject of orbital living pods, habitation complexes, and private space stations which may also become a reality in a few decades. Yes, as the technology improves and more and more people find themselves going into space, to the Moon, and beyond, Earth’s orbit could become the new international waters, where just about anything is legal, people do their “off-world banking”, and the rich live and play in low-gravity environments. Enjoy the chapter and please feel free to offer any and all constructive criticisms or comments…


“Treat” was hardly the word Muktari would have used. After a strenuous take off, the plane pulled into a sharp ascent, engaged its hypersonic engines, and was soon breaking the sound barrier several times over. Thus far, the trip was conforming to his expectations, which could only mean things would get worse before they got better. For the duration of their ascent, he had only one thought on his mind.

Why am I doing this? Was entertaining a possible job offer really this important to him? Would a few years in Oslo and the North Atlantic be so bad by comparison? Of course it would, but that didn’t make this personal first any more pleasant.

Of course, it was obvious why Harding had such a place available to him. More and more, one heard of corporate offices being placed in orbit, where the laws were laxer and off world authority was still being established. Most financiers found that they had at least another few decades before the law caught up to them and some interplanetary body would be created that could monitor their floating financial holdings or havens.

Nevertheless, the idea of breaking orbit and enduring near-weightlessness was not something he thought too highly of. Heights had been known to give him vertigo. How would standing above an entire planet feel in comparison?

Things did not improve until they hit atmo, at which point, weightlessness returned all of the blood which had been pooling in his legs to his head . He grunted loudly as the transition hit him, making his headache feel all the more noticeable.

“Don’t drink much do you?” asked Natalia, seated across from him.

“No,” he replied heavily. “Ironically, I think I could use a drink right now.”

She smiled. Pressed the button on the side of her seat. “What can we get you? This flight comes with a full refreshment service.”

“Nothing, please. I doubt I could keep it down right now.” He raised his hand as he said this. The effort to bring it to face height was incredibly easy, and he began to stare at it and everything around him as the ship coasted into the upper atmosphere. Everything that wasn’t anchored in place seemed to be floating carelessly, as if underwater. The sight of it seemed ethereal, almost entirely incorporeal.

He looked out the cabin window and spotted the thin blue layer of the upper atmosphere that was slowly pulling away from them. He had heard of the effect of seeing the great blue marble from orbit, but had imagined it would feel somewhat differently. Looking down at it all, he did not feel particularly grandiose or tiny, as he’d been told to expect. He mainly felt empty, as if some sense of pathos was struggling to be realized within him. He didn’t understand why, nor did he particularly want to think about what it meant…

“Folks, we’re about to engage the third stage drive. Please hang on and remain seated.”

“Oh dear,” Muktari breathed, tightening his grip on the arm rests. Natalia raised her voice to be heard over the sound of the gentle warning bell that began to fill the cabin with its chimes.

“Don’t worry. It’s nothing like breaking orbit. You’ll barely feel it at all.”

She was right too. It was marginally better. As soon as the noise died down, they felt a push that pushed Muktari into his seat and pulled Natalia against her restraints. But the force was relatively calm compared to the concerted effort it took to get them from the ground into the lower atmosphere. It almost felt soothing by comparison, and ended quicker too.

When the engine cut out, they began to coast again and things once again seemed to float everywhere. Muktari leaned back once more and took a deep, cleansing breath.

“Better?” she asked.

“Oh, yes. I love the irony of it too.”

“Irony? What irony?”

He opened his eyes, saw the look of genuine confusion on her face. He considered explaining it to her, how the very man who seemed to be proposing that some segment of humanity break the bonds of Earth and travel to the stars was terrified of doing it himself. That in itself seemed like irony enough, but the deeper implications of that were not something he felt like discussing. It was not simply a joyous experiment, he knew, but a possible necessity.

Mankind would either slip the bonds of Earth forever, or risk perishing below as it became less and less hospitable.  How could he explain that to one such as her, someone still young and from all outward appearances, happy to be alive in her time?

“Never mind,” he said. “It’s a moot point. All that matters is, you’re father wants to see me and I’m obliging him. As I imagine all people do.”

“He does seem to have that effect on people.”

Muktari hummed thoughtfully. “And does he make them all go through the effort of coming topside to see him or does he deign to travel to meet them from time to time?”

Her eyes grew distant and she looked away as she answered. “Not for some time now.”

It was Muktari’s turn to look confused, but nothing more seemed forthcoming and he didn’t feel like asking. He was sure all things would be made plain enough once they reached Harding’s particular module. Then he could marvel over the engineering achievement of such a thing and stroke Harding’s ego by telling him he had never seen one up close. He was sure he would find that flattering enough, and might even choose to intrigue Muktari by describing it’s construction in detail to him. He was sure he would find any discussion of a module’s internal ecology quite interesting to.

After a moment of strained silence, Natalia smiled to him again and retrieved her Flexpad. For the duration of the flight, they said nothing more to each other. Only the occasional corrective burst from the retro rockets seemed to break the smooth monotony of their course. Earth disappeared out the port side window too and all he could see after that was a background of stars. Looking at the rotating star field was likely to trigger vertigo, so he simply closed his eyes and tried to rest until they arrived.

It wasn’t until sunlight broke through the window that he chose to open them again.

“Oh! Oh my!” he said, shielding them from the harsh light. Once more, he was suffering terribly from the effects of a single night of irresponsibility.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yes, just let me know when the window’s adjusted.”

He heard her giggle. “It already has, so you’re safe. And you really should look. You can see it from here.”

“See what?”

“Curiosity,” she said plainly. That brought his eyes open. Anything with such an abstract name was something he had to see. Straining to adjust his eyes, he looked out the tinted window and waited for something other than the glowing ball in the background to become apparent to him.

And then it came to him. Twinkling in the night, it’s solar arrays stretching to the side like long, shining filaments, the small satellite hung before them. He could make out the hub in the center of it, discernible by its flashing status lights. As they neared, this bulbous middle section elongated and became a cylindrical structure, the lights flashing on it surface indicating that it was rotating. Only a small band at the very center of it remained steady, where the long arrays were mounted.

Towards the bottom end, where they seemed to be heading, a large aperture loomed. Bright lights shined out from within, and more blinking lights moved before his eyes as the doors on which they were mounted seemed to be sliding open to admit them.

Some more corrective bursts, and the entire thing shifted towards the nose of their craft. Slowly, Earth filled the window again and its yellow and green continents and shimmering skies were all that they could see. Another burst pushed him forwards against his restraints, and he felt them slowing.

And then, his window went grey. A long wall overtook them, metal, lighting and composite materials swallowing their ship and closing in behind them. More bursts, more corrective movements, and then a loud clang reverberated through the hall and he felt them come to a stop.

He felt blood trickle back into his feet and was struck by a slight dizziness. He lifted his arm again and noted the return of gravity, albeit just by a fraction. Clearly, the station was simulating barely a quarter g, if that much at all. He would find walking quite disorienting at first, then perhaps a bit adventurous. He would have to be careful.

Natalia’s voice was like a trumpeter call when she announced that it was time.

“Come on. I’ve arranged a short tour before we see my father. You’ll be quite interested to see what Curiosity has to offer.”

Muktari’s ears registered her voice like a harsh disturbance. At the moment, they were attuned to every noise in the ship, every din coming through the walls from the outside.  He could hear the sound of buzzing and whirring at work, coming through the walls fro somewhere to their fore. No doubt, a docking collar was extending from somewhere inside the bay and was busy mounting itself on the ship’s hatch.

“Are you coming?” she said, getting to her feet.

He very carefully undid his restraints, raised himself to his feet, and then sat back down.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I think I’ll wait. Don’t want to exit too soon. Decompression and all that.”

She didn’t laugh or giggle this time. After dealing with all his other hang ups, she appeared to be getting just the slightest bit tired of him. She extended her hand and addressed him the way a mother might address a child.

“I assure you, Doctor. No one is going to let you step off before the collar is fully fixed and pressurized. No one has ever died or suffered from asphyxiation while in my father’s care.”

She imbued his title with some degree of emphasis, he noticed. Perhaps she was seeking to remind him he was a man of science and such behaviors were supposed to be beneath him.

He shook his head. “Even so…”

She sighed once more and took hold of his hand. “Don’t worry,” she said calmly, but firmly. “I’ll be there with you in case anything bad happens. But I promise you, nothing will.”

He looked down at her hand, touching his, then to her face. Her eyes were insistent, but still soft and charming. And her hand felt warm against his, quite warm. Suddenly, he forgot about his dizzy spell and the remote chance he might die as he stepped off the craft. Even his headache seemed a distant memory right now…