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Expedition Seven Commander Yuri Malenchenko (left, holding food packet) and Science Officer Ed Lu (right, holding spoon) stand around a table in the galley and share a meal in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station.
By InnovationNewsDaily senior writer
updated 4/6/2012 4:27:11 PM ET 2012-04-06T20:27:11

Astronauts who go heavy on the hot sauce may welcome a less-messy space food idea from four high school students. The students are developing "Stellar Strips" — melt-in-your-mouth strips containing condiment flavors strong enough to jolt any sense of taste that has been dulled by life aboard a space station or spacecraft.

NASA's space food has come a long way from the early days of freeze-dried powders and semi-liquids squeezed out of aluminum tubes. Still, astronauts  must put up with deadened taste sensations because their sinuses clog in microgravity. The Stellar Strips would allow space travelers to enhance bland foods with barbecue, spicy, sweet, Asian or Mexican flavors — or even simple salt and pepper — without the zero-gravity mess.

"In a microgravity environment, you can't just use a salt and pepper shaker," said Myra Halpin, a chemistry and research instructor at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, in Durham. "One astronaut had written about how getting hot sauce on food was a challenge — he described spinning himself around to get the hot sauce out of the bottle."

Stellar Strips
A concept illustration showing how Stellar Strips could deliver flavor and micronutrients for astronauts.

The Stellar Strips idea came out of a Spirit of Innovation Challenge hosted by the Conrad Foundation and backed NASA and other government agencies. Halpin mentored the team of four high school juniors who read about the space food issues and pioneered the concept.

Students are working on a self-dissolving strip similar to a Listerine breath freshener that melts in your mouth. Their first prototypes were based on rice starch strips cut from Vietnamese spring roll wrappings and dissolved in water. The starch layers could hold in not only flavors but nutrients such as vitamin C or calcium salts (for fighting bone loss in microgravity).

"It was pliable, but it didn't dissolve too quickly. They tried different things like crystallizing sugar on it," Halpin told InnovationNewsDaily.

The student inventors prepared a sour-lemon-flavored version of the Stellar Strips for the Spirit of Innovation Challenge held at the NASA Ames Research Center in California March 29-31. They received tips from contest judges on how to put the Stellar Strips into practice — food for thought as they continue developing the idea in their spare time.

"One of the judges commented that they were concerned putting it under your tongue might be a problem, but putting it between your teeth and gums like old-fashioned snuff might be a better idea," Halpin said.

The students hope the strips can pass NASA safety tests and meet astronaut taste approval to get a first test flight in 2015.

Six or seven pounds of the Stellar Strips in a package the size of a ream of paper could give astronauts enough flavor choices for three meals a day over 15 years.

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Stellar Strips even might find customers on Earth among those who experience a reduced sense of taste, such as the elderly and patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer or taking beta blockers for high blood pressure.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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