Cornell University researcher Apollo Arquiza shows what the galley (kitchen) looks like in the zero gravity G-Force 1 space simulator plane.

George Jetson and the rest of his space-age family have it easy, but frying tofu and hash browns in space is actually a tricky thing.

That one involves coming up with a mathematical model to understand the behavior of oil in low-gravity environments, as well as designing a unique fryer, as Filipino scientist Apollo Arquiza and his colleagues have pointed out.

Arquiza, a postdoctoral research associate with a degree from University of the Philippines (UP) Los Baños, is involved in a Cornell University program that hopes to develop food technologies that will allow the first Mars astronauts to cook hot, decent meals for themselves.

NASA thinks it’s possible to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, and such an ambitious journey will take six months, according to experts.

If that’s the case, understanding the science of cooking in space could prove to be pivotal in an arduous manned mission to the red planet, as chowing on pre-packaged foods might lead to adverse health effects on astronauts over the course of a lengthy campaign.

However, getting the science right is far from easy and straightforward.

With less gravity, it takes longer for water to boil and, by extension, for ingredients to cook.

The effects of weightlessness on smell and taste perception also need to be considered, not to mention the obvious difficulties floating liquids present.

To simulate a galley in space, Arquiza and his fellow scientists Bryan Caldwell and Jean Hunter loaded a specialized fryer aboard a G-Force 1 space-simulator plane in a series of four flights from Houston.

They “tossed tofu and shredded potatoes into pans of sizzling oil and filmed the resulting oil splatters as the plane climbed and dove in parabolic paths,” an article in the Cornell Chronicle said.

“The experimenters positioned strips of paper inside the galley fume hood and dyed the oil bright red to help them see and collect splatter patterns. Under reduced-gravity conditions, the food settled more slowly into the pan, and more oil appeared to fall outside of it,” the article added.

The fryer itself is modeled after submarine galleys and chemical fume hoods used in labs, featuring activated charcoal filters plus a fan that draws air and particles away from the cook to minimize frying odors.

It’s also designed to withstand nine times the force of gravity.

Arquiza believes the oil droplets traveled farther from the pan because it took longer for gravity to pull them down.

Next on his to-do list is creating a computer model based on data from the project to better understand the basic physics of space-cooking.

Perhaps his efforts will one day lead to something bigger.

Jean Hunter, an associate professor in Cornell’s biological and environmental engineering department, certainly thinks so.

“Understanding oil spatter in reduced gravity,” Hunter notes, “is a big step toward designing safe and convenient cooking facilities for future space colonies.”

(InterAkson and Cornell Chronicle)


Apollo Arquiza (center) with fellow researchers Susana Carranza (left) and Bryan Caldwell.

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