Food from spirulina
One of the biggest challenges in space research is to enable long-duration manned space flights. It's a fact that it is impossible to take enough water and food on board for a manned mission to Mars. The European Space Agency ESA collaborates with the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre SCK•CEN and several other scientific partners, to develop a system that is capable of producing oxygen, potable water and food on the basis of organic and inorganic waste. Bacteria are key elements in this process.
For the shorter missions, as we know them now, everything the astronauts need is packed on earth and sent with them. For long-duration missions, that is no longer possible. Various generations of scientists worked for 25 years on an independent ecosystem for space crafts. SCK•CEN is one of the founders of this MELiSSA project (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative). Since the Belgian pioneering work, MELiSSA has grown into a large-scale international project led by ESA.
"It is the only way ever to realise journeys to Mars", says Natalie Leys, head of the Microbiology unit and project manager at SCK•CEN. "For the fixation of CO2 and the production of oxygen out of water, we use a well-known process: photosynthesis. To integrate that process in space, we need microbiology. We looked for the smallest organisms possible that conduct photosynthesis en that is how we found the cyanobacteria. Small scale is important because, obviously, it is impossible to plant a tree in a space capsule."
From space to class room
To give young people an idea of this fascinating and complex space research, ESA launched the Food from Spirulina project. In March, experimentation kits were delivered to schools all over Europe. Thousands of pupils put on their lab coats and started experimenting with spirulina, one of the essential bacteria in MELiSSA. That way, they could determine themselves that spirulina is capable of producing oxygen.
For 100 Belgian pupils, the experiment even gets a special continuation; together with Swedish and Greek pupils, they can share their experiences today live with astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on board of the International Space Station ISS. SCK•CEN was selected by ESA to organise a live video connection with ISS from the turbine hall of the former research reactor BR3.