Growing Food in Space


R ight now, if you’re an astronaut, you’re given prepared food that was cooked on Earth and sent into space on a rocket. But if humankind wants to realize its ambition of travelling much further into the solar system it needs to find ways to create food and oxygen while surrounded by the emptyness of space.

Exactly how much food and air has been precisely calculated. Brigitte Lamaze, from the European Space Agency (ESA), spells out the details: “The basic figures that are used are 5 kilos per astronaut per day in terms of metabolic consumption. So that means one kilo of oxygen, one kilo of dehydrated food, and three kilos of water, which are used as drinking water and to hydrate the food.”

ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative team (MELiSSA) pilot plant at UAB Barcelona is running a test system using rats and algae in which the rats breathe oxygen from the algae, and the algae breathe CO2 from the rats.

Francesc Gòdia, Professor of Chemical Engineering at UAB, explains: “The rats, by breathing, are producing the CO₂. The micro-algae capture the CO₂, and with the light in the photo bioreactor are able to produce the photosynthesis, producing oxygen. And then the oxygen goes back to the compartment with the animals. This is done in a closed loop, continuously.”

One of the great challenges the MELiSSA team has overcome is developing a system to almost instantly increase oxygen production from the micro-algae.

“The illumination of the photobioreactor is more intensive or less intensive depending on the amount of oxygen that is required by the rats,” says Gòdia.

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