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Fall 2003 - On to Mars

Destination Purdue > Fall 2003 - On to Mars

On to Mars: Food science department conducts research for NASA

By Krista Graves

Marvin the Martian might not be exactly who you expect to find in every Purdue University office, but you can definitely look for signs of him in Purdue's Department of Food Science.

Ilan Weiss sorts dehydrated food

Photo by Krista Graves

Ilan Weiss, a graduate research assistant, sorts through dehydrated food in a food science lab. The dehydrated food is being studied for NASA's Mission to Mars.

Why is Marvin hanging around the food science department? He's just a friendly reminder for researchers as they conduct studies and tests in preparation for NASA's Mission to Mars. The Mission to Mars, scheduled to take place in the 2020's or 2030's, will include a six-to-eight month flight each way and a two-year stay on the surface of the planet. So, with an average of three years for the entire journey, you can see why food studies are important.

The main areas of food science are food processing, packaging and safety. Lisa Mauer, assistant professor in food science, works mainly on food processing and packaging research. One aspect of food processing, a food's shelf life, is vital to the Mission to Mars. "We're looking at ways to minimize packaging to maximize shelf life," Mauer said. "The food needs a shelf life of three to five years for the mission. The food and its packaging go through some very stringent testing."

Astronauts not only need to have food that can last the long trip, but they need to have a variety of foods to maintain a healthy body mass. If astronauts eat the same foods constantly, studies have shown that they eat less and lose weight due to the stressful environment they are confined to, Mauer said. So the researchers are at work providing that variety. Some of the foods packaged include dehydrated hamburgers, scrambled eggs and even M&M's.

Another main area of the food science department's research is food safety. Bruce Applegate, food science researcher, said it is very important that the food that is opened and eaten on the mission is healthy. "If contaminated food is opened in a closed environment, there is a greater chance to spread that bacteria to other foods," Applegate said.

Purdue's researchers are trying to come up with a way to detect whether the food is contaminated without opening the package. "We are working on a method of testing the food for bacteria and viruses that is somewhat similar to a home pregnancy test," Applegate said. The detectors would consist of strips built into the packaging with colors or lines to indicate contamination. If the strips signal that the food is contaminated, the package won't be opened, and the bacteria won't spread through the closed environment, he said.

Purdue's food science department is not the only department at Purdue conducting research for NASA's Mission to Mars. Purdue's Department of Computer Sciences and its Schools of Engineering are also in on these and other studies being conducted for the mission.

So, back to Marvin the Martian. He will be seen in offices of the Department of Food Science for years to come. Maybe it would be a good idea to meet up with him for a package of dehydrated M&M's.