What Will We Eat on the Way to Mars? Poop, Of Course

NASA/Getty Images
NASA/Getty Images

There are plenty of tough problems NASA has to work out before it can send astronauts on long-term manned missions to planets like Mars, but one of the biggest questions is sustenance. When we have sent robots to Mars, the trip has taken around eight months, but it required no food. If we were to send humans out into space for months at a time, they would need to either pack or grow enough food to keep them from starving for the entire duration of their mission. One answer may lie in our toilets, as The Independent reports.

In a study in the journal Life Sciences in Space Research, Penn State University astrobiologists report that with a little microbial magic, they can potentially turn wastewater into food. Using the methane produced during an anaerobic waste treatment process (a oxygen-free technique already used to treat Earthly sewage), they were able to culture three bacterial species, two of which—Methylococcus capsulatus and Thermus aquaticus—yield "protein- and lipid-rich biomass that can be directly consumed," according to the study. Yum.

In The Independent, Penn State professor Christopher House describes the resulting "microbial goo" as being kind of like Vegemite or Marmite. In theory, you could either eat it by itself—poop toast, anyone?—or use it as a high-protein supplement to feed fish, insects, or other live food sources.

Plenty of testing remains to be done before this type of microbial mixture could be made into human food at all, much less deployed on a spacecraft, where everything has to be perfectly engineered to balance astronauts' needs with space and weight considerations to stay fuel-efficient. But in Europe, the microbe is already approved to feed fish, pigs, and other farmed animals, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to think it could feed animals on a space ship. Whether astronauts will be eating it for months on end will have to be seen.

[h/t The Independent]

The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend


October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

The shower is expected to peak overnight from Sunday, October 21, to Monday, October 22, when you can plan to see 15 to 20 super-fast meteors per hour. The best time for viewing is between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., when Orion appears completely above the horizon. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

There's a chance that the Moon might interfere with the meteors' visibility, according to Space.com. Leading up to its full state on October 24, the Moon will be in a waxing gibbous phase, becoming larger and brighter in the sky as the Orionids speed past Earth. Limiting light pollution where you can—such as by avoiding city lights—will help.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be another meteor shower, the Leonids, in November, and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

A version of this story appeared in 2017.

How the Hubble Space Telescope Helped the Fight Against Breast Cancer

NASA, Getty Images
NASA, Getty Images

The beauty of scientific research is that scientists never really know where a particular development might lead. Research on Gila monster venom has led to the invention of medication that helps manage type 2 diabetes, and enzymes discovered in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park are now widely used for DNA replication, a technique used by forensic scientists to analyze crime scenes.

The same rule of thumb applies to NASA scientists, whose work has found dozens of applications outside of space exploration—especially in medicine.

Take the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched in 1990, the Hubble has graced us with stunning, intimate photographs of our solar system. But it wasn't always that way—when the telescope was launched, the first images beamed back to earth were awfully fuzzy. The image processing techniques NASA created to solve this problem not only sharpened Hubble's photos, but also had an unexpected benefit: Making mammograms more accurate.

As NASA reports, "When applied to mammograms, software techniques developed to increase the dynamic range and spatial resolution of Hubble's initially blurry images allowed doctors to spot smaller calcifications than they could before, leading to earlier detection and treatment."

That's because the Hubble Space Telescope contains a technology called Charge-Coupled Devices, or CCDs, which are basically electron-trapping gizmos capable of digitizing beams of light. Today, CCDs allow "doctors to analyze the tissue by stereotactic biopsy, which requires a needle rather than surgery," NASA says [PDF]. Back in 1994, NASA predicted that this advancement could reduce national health care costs by approximately $1 billion every year.

And that's just one of the tools NASA has developed that's now being used to fight breast cancer. When cancer researcher Dr. Susan Love was having trouble studying breast ducts—where breast cancer often originates—she turned to research coming out of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As Rosalie Chan reports for the Daily Beast, the Jet Propulsion Lab has dedicated vast resources to avoiding the spread of earthly contaminants in space, and its research has included the development of a genomic sequencing technology that is "clean and able to analyze microscopic levels of biomass." As Dr. Love discovered, the same technology is a fantastic way to test for cancer-linked microorganisms in breast duct tissue.

A second technology developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the Quantum Well Infrared Photodetector, or QWIP—enables humans to see invisible infrared light in a spectrum of colors, helping scientists discover caves on Mars and study volcanic emissions here on Earth. But it's also useful at the doctor's office: A QWIP medical sensor can detect tiny changes in the breast's blood flow—a sign of cancer—extremely early.

And as any doctor will tell you, that's huge: The earlier cancer is detected, the greater a person's chance of survival.