Algae in Space: Bioregenerative Life Support Systems

 

“Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no

man can resist.” – Neil Armstrong

If you’re spending years aboard a starship, you can’t carry everything you need with you; you’ll have to cultivate it yourself. This is where algae may help.

One of the most crucial challenges facing long-term space missions is the creation of a self-sustaining environment for astronauts. Traditional life support systems rely on bulky and heavy oxygen tanks, posing logistical challenges and limitations on mission duration.This is where researchers are turning to an unexpected ally– algae. Known for its critical role in producing oxygen on Earth, algae is emerging as a versatile solution to address various challenges associated with extended space travel, including food production, waste removal, radiation shielding, and air revitalization.

Lungs in Space

Algae, the unassuming green biomass, is responsible for generating at least 50% of the oxygen we breathe on Earth.They are photosynthetic organisms that convert carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into oxygen (O2) and biomass through the process of photosynthesis. This natural process makes them ideal candidatesfor oxygen production in space. Unlike plants, algae require significantly less space and water, making them more efficient for closed-loop systems.

Slimy Nutrition in Space

Long-term space missions necessitate a fundamental shift in how we think about sustenance. Unlike our Earth-bound existence, where food readily arrives at supermarkets, astronauts venturing into the vast unknown must cultivate their own sustenance. This is where algae, those microscopic aquatic organisms, emerge as a promising solution.

Algae offer a diverse array of nutrients essential for human health:

Protein: Certain species like Chlorella and Spirulina boast protein content exceeding 60%, significantly higher than most plants. This protein is easily digestible and packed with essential amino acids, the building blocks of life.

Vitamins and Minerals: Algae are rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, C, E, and K, as well as essential minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium, and zinc. These micronutrients are crucial for maintaining various bodily functions and preventing deficiency diseases.

Essential Fatty Acids: Algae are a natural source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, important for brain function, heart health, and overall well-being.

Antioxidants: Algae are brimming with antioxidants like carotenoids and flavonoids, which protect cells from damage and may help prevent chronic diseases.

Cosmic Shield and Waste warrior

Algae’s adaptability extends to shielding astronauts from cosmic radiation. Placing algae reactors on the exterior of the spacecraft could leverage liquid culture as a protective medium. Additionally, if fed with human waste, algae could efficiently recycle nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, providing a sustainable solution for waste removal.

Integrated Systems for Life Support

Dr. Matula’s research proposes integrating algae into the existing thermal control loops of spacecraft. These loops are responsible for removing excess heat generated by various onboard systems. By utilising the water circulatingwithin these loops, algae can be cultivated simultaneously, providing multiple benefits including heat removal,air revitalisation,resource recycling,food production and optimising resource utilisation in confined space environments.

Current Developments and Future Potential

Several research projects are exploring the potential of algae in space. The European Space Agency (ESA) conducted experiments on the International Space Station (ISS) using a photobioreactor, a device that provides optimal conditions for algae growth. The results demonstrated the feasibility of using algae for oxygen generation and wastewater treatment in space.

NASAi s also actively researching ways to utilise algae in future space missions. Their MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) project aims to develop a closed-loop system that utilises algae and other biological components to create a self-sustaining environment for long-term space exploration.

Challenges and Considerations

While algae offer significant potential for oxygen generation in space, several challenges need to be addressed:

● Light Requirements: Algae require specific wavelengths of light for photosynthesis. Providing sufficient and efficient lighting in space requires careful consideration and technological advancements.

● Contamination Control: Maintaining a sterile environment is crucial for preventing contamination in closed-loop systems. This requires rigorous monitoring and control measures.

● System Design and Optimization: Designing and optimising photobioreactors for space applications requires further research and development to ensure efficient and reliable operation.

Conclusion

While each aspect of life support—heat removal, waste removal, air revitalization, water, radiation shielding, and fuel—has shown promise individually, the synthesis of these functions into a unified system remains unexplored. As researchers continue to delve into the potential of algae in space, the green organism might just become the cornerstone of future bioregenerative life support systems, paving the way for sustained human exploration beyond our home planet.

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