“Whipped” Into Shape: Studying Foam in Space
Tuesday, September 18th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
Got your coffee or hot chocolate with just the right amount of creamy foam, with the perfect level fluffiness? By the time you get settled back at your office or home, that foam is probably not quite…right. The problem? That would be gravity, pulling on the bubbles, tearing the foam apart. In the weightlessness of microgravity, however, researchers have found that the bubbles remain evenly spread and stable. And that means that, yes, you might get a better latte in space.
No, Starbucks isn’t setting up shop on the Moon or International Space Station anytime soon. However, after years of studying the effects of microgravity on foams using the best available technology on Earth — including parabolic flights and sounding rockets — the European Space Agency is exploring future foam studies on the ISS.
Nestle Tests Foam in Microgravity
The ESA says it has been researching foams since the 1980s. And about 10 years ago, their work attracted the attention of the food company Nestle.
Nestle wants to find ways to create stable foams so that things like chocolate mousse and coffee froth stay “light and creamy” for as long as possible. The company has even tested milk protein in weightlessness, 20 seconds at a time, using ESA’s parabolic aircraft.
Parabolic aircraft are modified commercial jets that are put on an upward arc, where the thrust is adjusted so that there is no lift. The plane goes into free fall, simulating microgravity (or weightlessness) for a few seconds as it reaches its peak and then starts its downward arc.
Whipped Into Shape
In some experiments, researchers have been able to use electromagnetically powered pistons to “whip the liquids into shape,” ESA says. More research is needed to find ways to create more stable foams without adding ingredients.
While sounding rockets can offer up to six minutes of weightlessness, the ISS is the only permanent microgravity laboratory available, the ESA notes.
If the research goes forward, it would not be the first experiments on the effects of microgravity on food. Eating in space has always been a primary concern for those who might live there for weeks or months at a time. And it’s a challenge. Solid foods and liquids must be adequately contained lest they float away from astronauts’ mouths and into sensitive equipment.
Earth vs. Ether
Also, ingredients that react one way on Earth often do something completely different in microgravity, leading to problems with taste, consistency, and the like. Cooking methods must also be different in weightlessness (and you thought chopping onions at home was hard).
With the idea of keeping astronauts as happy as possible on potentially long missions (like a trip to Mars and back) NASA earlier this year asked for volunteers to live in isolation for four months to test recipes using cooking methods and prepackaged ingredients that can work in microgravity.
It might be good news for many of those future deep-space astronauts to know they may be able to get their cappuccino or latte foam the way they want it — if they can just keep it out of the control boards.
Yet there is some bad news if astronauts on the Space Station hope to help out with any future foam experiments, if they happen. ESA officials say only small quantities of foam will be needed for testing, and no taste tests will be needed.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries, as well as health care issues. AJ blogs via Contently.com.