XPRIZE Mars Food

In space, saving resources is a matter of life and death. While circular systems exist, for a future that is sustainable and sustains life in space, these technologies need to be refined and scalable. What if we could maximize the recovery of materials that are brought to and used in space?

Solutions may be focused on life-support systems or kept broader to include upcycling and repurposing materials.

We would like to learn from you:

  • What are the innovation gaps in this area?
  • What would the winning team need to do?
  • What would be audacious but achievable targets?
  • What is the expected impact of this prize?

@LBakerLyon Closed-loop systems help keep astronauts alive in space. When implemented, these systems could inform circular economy strategies. The main space agencies would like to explore further than the Earth’s orbit. To be able to do that, you need to carry onboard the spacecraft all the metabolic needs for the astronauts, which means air, water, food, etc. That is a lot of mass, it’s even too much for the capabilities of the launchers. The only solution is to recycle everything onboard, and try to reproduce oxygen, water and food from the waste. Not only human waste, there’s also CO2 which is breathed out by the astronaut, urine, plastic, packaging and so on.

It’s really important to be able to have a community that understands the challenges of a closed loop system. Today you have a lot of people who are talking about a closed loop, but they don’t realise what it really means. That will already be an achievement, that the people understand the challenges of closing the loop and are then able to progress altogether.

The biggest risk is that it doesn’t work! In principle there is that risk, that the astronaut will suddenly have no oxygen, no water and no food, but this is a limited risk because in space we never have just one technology, we always have another in case of redundancy and so on.

There are other problems however, for example when you are living in a habitat that is extremely closed, anything can become harmful, such as chemicals that are present during the first hours at a very low level but accumulate progressively and can then become toxic for the astronaut. We also have a lot of microorganisms, because the astronaut produces a lot of these as well. There could be pathogens and this could be a risk. Generally the astronaut is living in microgravity, meaning everything is floating, and there are also some particles that can be floating in the air. If they are swallowed by the astronaut by mistake that becomes a risk as well. The challenges of managed space missions are very high.

ESA’s Advanced Closed Loop System (ACLS) recycles carbon dioxide on the Space Station into oxygen. The facility is a Space Station-standard 2-m tall rack. Although the system is made to demonstrate the new technology, it will be part of the Space Station’s life support system and produce oxygen for three astronauts, and operated for at least 1 year over 2 years to demonstrate its performance and reliability.

The system traps carbon dioxide from the air as it passes through small beads made from a unique amine developed by ESA for human spaceflight. Steam is then used to extract the carbon dioxide and process it in a Sabatier reactor to create methane and water. Electrolysis then splits the water back into oxygen while the methane is vented into space.

The system is a huge step for human spaceflight as space agencies prepare for exploring further from Earth. Sustainable life-support systems are needed for longer missions such as to the lunar Gateway that is the next structure to be built by the partners of the International Space Station. Foreseen as a staging post for missions to the Moon and even Mars the Gateway will be further away from Earth so harder and more expensive to ferry supplies.


Hi @amirsiraj, and @AngeloVermeulen - What are your thoughts on this prize idea - is it audacious enough? What are innovation gaps in this area?

@Shashi On Earth, biological agents, acting in concert with a biotic aspects of the biosphere, have provided a closed-loop life support system for millions of years. Bioregenerative life support systems are based on the idea of utilizing the natural biological abilities of living organisms to provide life support in a microcosm. The challenge is to make the microcosm small and reliable.

Bioregenerative processes are capable of fulfilling many functions, with the exception of temperature and humidity control and atmosphere control and supply. Bioregenerative processes may play a major role in removing CO2 and producing O2, potable water, and food. They may play a smaller role in contamination control and waste processing. Incorporating bioregenerative techniques, although increasing system closure, generally comes at the expense of increasing volume, power, and thermal load requirements.


Hi @mashizaq - Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas. What do you think should be an audacious but achievable targets in such a scenario. Ideally what would you expect the wining team to demonstrate.

Hi @Shashi - If we are going to make humans a multiplanetary species, we need to know how we can comfortably travel to distant places. Right now we only know how to live in the ISS, but very soon we are going to have privately owned space stations such as the Voyager Space Station by the Gateway Foundation. For a journey to Mars, that becomes a bigger challenge and evidently, we do not know how to take humans safely to Mars and back.

The current technology (which is yet to be proven useful for long duration mission) only put emphasis on reducing wastage through recycling. One good example is MELiSSA, whose aim is to develop the technology for a future regenerative life support system for long-term human space missions. Unfortunately, The longer and further the missions are, the more difficult and costly it becomes to supply resources.

While MELiSSA’s aim is to ideally create an artificially closed ecosystem, I really do not think that this system is viable enough to support such long durarion missions.

An ideal system should not provide an artificial closed ecosystem but rather a more realistic life support system that solves the effects of microgravity and space radiation. New technologies are being developed every day, technologies like carbon nanotubes, which have the diameter of 10,000 times less than that of a human hair, they’re stronger than steel, and have the stiffness properties of diamond; 3D printers, which are developing quite remarkable products every day with new technologies across the world.

For longer duration flight missions like to Mars, wouldn’t it be worth considering technologies like cryo (in the absence of artificial gravity), which would both act as a sheild against radiation, thereby ensuring the efficient use of nonrenewable resources packed from Earth while increasingly relying on resources available locally in space.

Another technology worth noting is the issue of longevity in space. The importance of human longevity advancements to the future of the space economy cannot be understated. People must be able to not only live and work in space for weeks or months. They will need to thrive and perform amazing feats of engineering for years and, eventually, decades. But the interplanetary environment presents immensely difficult challenges to achieving that goal: Zero gravity weakens and wreaks havoc on all bodily systems; cosmic radiation delivers mega doses of cell and DNA damage; and traveling any appreciable distance will result in decades of aging.

Maybe the only reason we so like to say that space is the final frontier is to distract ourselves from the knowledge that actually the defeat of aging is the final frontier, and that it’s very far away. Except that it no longer is. The fearlessness and ingenuity that got us into space, and that has achieved so many other things with pioneering technology over the years, is now set to conquer the greatest challenge of all.

Sex and gender significantly influence health on Earth and in space. To ensure the health and safety of male and female astronauts during long-duration space missions, it is imperative to examine and understand the influences that sex and gender have on physiological and psychological changes that occur during spaceflight.


Hi @AnoushehAnsari - What are your thoughts on this prize idea?

Applying the Systems Engineering discipline would be necessary in defining the subsystems that enable life support in space and NASA have a robust template ( Life Support Systems | NASA ) for systems architecture for comparison - see picture below.

Expanding this to the Ecosystem view allows a full lifecycle view of each resource, and analysis of the efficiency and effectiveness of each would highlight the potential for innovation, as mentioned in the article: "…developing, demonstrating, and/or testing leading process technology candidates and systems architectures that will fill capability gaps or significantly improve efficiency, safety, and reliability.

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Hi @alexanderghayes, @peterwillis and @mtflynn516 - In your views Ideally, what should be the Impact of a prize for circular systems in space that is scalable and sustainable?

I looked up the wiki entry on Bioshpere 2 ( Biosphere 2 - Wikipedia ) and at first glance it has / had limited success, physically ("…low amounts of food and oxygen, die-offs of many animals and plants") and psychologically ("…intimate friends had become implacable enemies"). Perhaps the lesson is that human life is not best suited for outer space - not to say that we do not explore, but that we merge with the technology to mitigate the inhibiting factors.

As an architect, I could pick a selection of techs and assess their relative maturity, efficacy and efficiency by way of trade studies against a candidate Solution which is intended to achieve a Goal. So if, for example, the Goal is to improve oxygen availability and reduce dependency, it leads me to consider leading-edge techs such as microfluidic Electrochemical Reaction for CO2 electrolysis; Ion Exchange Membrane electrolysis; Combined Solid Oxide Co-Electrolyzer. I could assess the potential for these (and others) to be integrated indirectly - then directly - as an aid to human life support via nanotechnology developments ( Applications of nanoparticles in biology and medicine | Journal of Nanobiotechnology | Full Text (biomedcentral.com) ) and assess the potential for convergence. I’m not an expert in this field - there may be ZERO potential - but the exploration may suggest other ideas and avenues.

However, I lack the skills and consensus needed to articulate the Vision for humanity: are these things that we want? Will the net Value be positive, with beneficial User Experience? Would such a merge be available to all?

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Hi @Basia, @dmimoun, @easphaug, @derleth - In your views - what are your thoughts on having a closed loop system in space? If successful - What would be the Impact of such a system? What are the innovation gaps in this space?

@Shashi If circular systems in space are to be scalable and sustainable, and it is articulated as part of the shared Vision (“where do we want to be?”), then the (Non-Functional) Requirements for scalability and sustainability are derived from the Functional Requirements that implement the Success Factors (SF - “how will we know when we get there?”) of the Vision.

The process is therefore:

  1. Articulate the Vision and desirable Scenarios (“what will it be like there?”)
  2. Describe the SF by which the Goals of the Vision are attained
  3. Derive the Requirements from the SF and Scenarios which include the 3 tests for value, experience and availability.

At that stage, the Solution Space can be analyzed and trade-off studies performed to find the best compromise. For example, you may find a benefit of xx% in an aspect of sustainability but requires $yy extra investment;

  • Build the Solution
  • Test it as the system elements integrate
  • Test the end result for quality of User Experience
  • Repeat in a virtuous circle until the Vision is achieved.
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It’s great to see this aspect being proactively considered for space based activities. We’ve learnt on Earth that littering and waste represents an unsustainable policy, and this would be the case with an increasingly cluttered set of orbital paths.

We are just beginning to see 3D printing in space emerge as a new technology. So it’s fair to assume that a series of incremental innovations will see such approaches realised for construction in space. However, we’ve yet to see concepts and prototypes that can take in any old waste in orbit, and use that as the raw material for space based 3D printing. That’s a great audacious, but achievable, challenge.

Teams might need to do the following, in space:

  • collect a variety of types of orbital debris, of radically varying sizes [~ 1mm to a few metres?]
  • pre-process it [e.g. “grind” down the parts into manageable parts]
  • process it into a suitable reusable resource for the printers, then
  • 3D print a number of objects.

(It might be that large space based objects (e.g. satellites and old space station modules) will be tackled in the future by a separate set of processes and technologies; and the resulting small parts are passed to devices performing the above tasks.)

The teams would need to derive power for their prototypes - ideally from solar power.

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Just a few comments on my proposal.

The XPRIZE challenge at the top of the page could of course apply to other contexts beyond my proposal - such as in space stations, rockets carrying humans on long voyages, on the Moon, Mars and other planets. There are lots of aspects to consider there - some of which others have commented on. All aspects are worthy of consideration and it might benefit from more than one XPRIZE.

I recognise that the current trend to clear LEO waste is to capture it and then aim it to towards Earth. However, if scaled up in the future this might introduce its own increasing risks - such as collisions with vital infrastructure, transport, buildings, people, etc. Also nuclear fission powered devices would pollute the planet with radioactivity.

[Ah, dealing with radioactive waste presents a unique additional challenge - do we need a specific challenge for that? We wouldn’t want to recycle radioactive waste into new 3D printed devices!]

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Thanks for your comments! After reading the above, I am wondering if you meant to comment on the Orbital Debris Cleanup prize?

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Yes, it applies to both this, to an extent, and the cleanup prize. The aim being to use resources in any form (including waste, e.g. orbital debris).

@Shashi Similar to life on the ISS, the Neumayer Station III, the third iteration of a German research facility run by the polar science-focused Alfred Wegener Institute, aims at identifying whether astronauts can make fresh produce part of their diets if humans finally make it to Mars. Psychological advantages aside, the greenhouse is already showing researchers how plants might thrive in deep space.

One intriguing challenge they’ve overcome is how to tend the garden remotely. Everything is grown aeroponically, which means the plants are suspended and the roots are exposed to air below. Nutrients are delivered via a sprayed solution rather than soil. This spraying—along with temperature control, lighting, and carbon dioxide adjustments—is operated from a mission control center at the German Aerospace Center in Bremen, Germany.

There is no one way to learn, especially as design is an ever-expanding practice where there are always new skills, methodologies and trends to explore. “A great design leader has a vision about what is best for people, process and content and knows how to convince others of this vision” (PARK Co-Founder Frans Joziasse). With the introduction of new technologies and updated approaches, life suport systems are constantly evolving. Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.

A combination of functionality and symbolism. The microgravity, vacuum and vantage point provide an environment for research and learning that can create the skills and insights for the burgeoning space economy. But the symbolism of a space presence, not just for the next decade, but also at the start of this millennium is important.

Knowledge generated in space has inspired many innovations, including cell phone cameras, water purification systems and has led to discoveries in medicine, materials, and manufacturing. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals address the biggest challenges facing our earth now, needing urgent attention. This knowledge would aim at tackling particular types of ‘wicked problems’ and leveraging space-based research alongside different disciplines from the social sciences, physical sciences, information technology and business. Applied research in artificial retinas, pure fiber optic cables, drought resistant plants, and even new understandings of how genes might express themselves under these unique stresses will lead to discoveries and new business applications.

Collaborative research processes need to be more accessible – there is a need to design research tools, datasets, research outputs and communication from a collaborative point of view. Design brings not only creativity but also imagination and empathy. We need designers able to imagine and give form to the new world we are fighting for, and empathy and insight to understand how we move from where we are, to where we could be. Design can contribute to problem solving and ideation exploration through the design thinking process is a starting point. Digital communication design is integral to creating tele-present connectivity between earth and space.

As in all the disciplines, design will be faced with new challenges not encountered on Earth. The third dimension will be more important in the design of spaces — how will human needs adapt to these new environments involving not just gravity shifts, but also significant changes in atmosphere, temperature, and light. NASA has done a lot of leading research on crowdsourcing research, but the overall impact on how closed-loop systems work is limited. Space research grows rapidly in private sector institutions, but uses are focused on core private sector interests. Results are shared with citizens, but only indirectly. There are many areas of pedagogy that already embrace the field of space, including futurist design, space architecture, communication design, materials design, systems design and user experience design, among others. Fundamentally, design is a connecting point of all fields of endeavour and provides a bridge between art, science, technology, engineering and commerce. It is an integral component of all new learning.

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We’re wordsmithing what we call the “winning-team-will statement” for this prize: a succinct description of what a competing team would need to do to win.

Here’s the current version, and I’d appreciate your thoughts:
Demonstrate the most efficient water, air, or CO2 recycling, servicing a community of 25 people (TBD volume), in X pressure.

The next step are drafting the testing and judging criteria for the prize. Here’s what we have so far:

  • Prototype, proof-of-concept scale
  • Target service population: 25 people
  • Recycle/upcycle: air or CO2
  • Most efficiently
  • Longest system lifetime: of Y years and higher
  • Scalable/modular: serve 25 people and build on that
  • Real time monitoring for safety
  • Bonus points for novel processes: maybe biological, bio-based processes.

@mashizaq, @marz62 and @akb - We would love to hear your feedback on the wining team will statement and testing and judging criteria.


Hello @Shashi, I can’t believe we are finally here. Fingers crossed :crossed_fingers: Can only pray this Prize Idea finds favour in the judges’ eyes. I am not that good in coming up with “winning-team-will statements”. Afterall, I trust you had your best interests at heart when you came up with this one. Personally, I love it. But if I get another one I will definitely share with you.

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When we think about scalable /modular biosystems, the idea of algae comes into mind. Algae can be cultivated independent of arable land and, especially in the case of many microalgae, produce oil- and/or protein-rich biomass with spatial efficiency which far exceeds that of terrestrial plants.

Despite being a comparatively new branch of agriculture, algae production is often considered to be a solution to many food security-related problems, such as land scarcity, climate change, inefficient and unsustainable fertilizer usage, as well as associated nutrient leakage and water pollution.

There is no need for genetic modification. After billions of years of evolution, nature has provided the natural solutions we need. At SuSeWi, they have developed and proven innovative technology to produce microalgae… just as nature has for billions of years – stimulating algae to ‘bloom’ faster than any other organism on earth, using only sun, sea and wind.

Keith Coleman, (Co-Founder & CEO at Susewi), reasons that, “use of digital and artificial intelligence to understand what is going around in nature is vital in the production and scalability of algae. Be natural, do not over-engineer and be relentless. Iterating is important, but also taking a step back and understanding the nature is also important”.

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Understanding radiation and future space missions

Recently, a new idea, hibernation, has been proposed as possible mitigation against radiation. Hibernation is a state of reduced metabolism used by many mammals to survive periods of scarcity of resources. During the hibernation period, animals go through a series of extreme physiological adaptations. Among these is a reduction in food intake, and the most important adaptation, as shown by several studies on acute high-dose low-linear energy transfer (low-LET) irradiation, is that animals increase their radioresistance, one of the main advantages of hibernation.

Torpor and hibernation are natural physiological processes. Torpor refers to a period of metabolic suppression with a duration from a few hours to several weeks. The state of torpor is probably older in evolutionary terms and was likely a survival strategy of protomammals. Hibernation is a more elaborate behavior, structured in many long bouts of torpor separated by brief interbout arousals (IBA). The scope of these arousals is still unknown. (Evidence suggests that interbout arousals function to maintain or rebalance carbon and nitrogen homeostasis.) During hibernation, the animal undergoes a series of profound physiological changes. (Remarkably, in most hibernators, hibernation is interspersed by short periods of less than a day, called interbout arousals, during which animals quickly (<90 min) increase their metabolism and return to euthermic Tb levels while restoring their main physiological functions.) Recently, the neurons and neuronal circuits that are involved in controlling hibernation have become evident. The first artificial method capable of bringing a non-hibernator (rat) into what is now called synthetic torpor was developed using microinjections of the GABA-A receptor agonist muscimol (temporarily inactivates neurons by mimicking the inhibitory neural effects of GABA) into the brainstem region of the raphe pallidus (RPa) of a rat. This synthetic torpor was shown to increase the radioprotection of organs such as the liver and testis four hours after X-ray irradiation. Here, we discuss the possible mechanisms underlying this fascinating physiological process.

Although hibernators can be found naturally, there are still many things to be discovered about hibernation. Why are hibernators more radioresistant during their inactive state than in their active state? How can they overcome inactivity problems due to prolonged immobility, such as the loss of muscle tone and bone calcium? Although artificially induced torpor in rats was successfully done and showed increased radioresistance, the intriguing questions evade direct answers due to the limitations of currently available experimental preparations, techniques, and data. Hibernation is no longer just a phenomenon that affects a few animal species globally. Perhaps, thanks to the in-depth study of the hibernator phenotype, it can become a new tool to improve the quality of life and radiation protection in future space missions.

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