Supernova Search Group Sees Algae-based Solutions in Space

Supernova Search Group

Experimental setup from the pilot study showing the potted plants and lighting at ILMAH. Image courtesy of T. Trevino.

American Public University System (APUS) has announced that the Spirulina Algae Group, part of the University’s Supernova Search Group, has received a NASA research grant to study the use of spirulina for growing plants in space environments. The research focuses on the use of Hawaiian Spirulina Pacifica, scientifically known as Arthrospira platensis, to help support plant health, nutritional value, and production rates for many plants in similar conditions to Mars and the Moon.  

The Supernova Search Group deduced that future human settlements on the Moon and Mars will need to find ways to grow plants in soil environments (known as regolith) that have no organic material and do not typically support plant growth. The research seeks to identify sustainable solutions to help support astronauts on prolonged missions using algae-based systems.

“We are honored to be awarded a prestigious NASA research grant, and the funds will enable us to perform a comprehensive study on this important issue in space exploration,” said Dr. Kristen Miller, an APUS professor who, along with STEM Department Chair Dr. Edward Albin, created the Supernova Search Group.

The research, funded by NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), will help in NASA’s development of an outer space settlement capable of growing its own food and supporting human life. The Spirulina Group includes Dr. Miller, American Public University undergraduate student Emma Follis; American Military University alums Terry Trevino and Dr. Larry Harrison (professor, University of Hawaii); Erin Stamper (Cyanotech Corporation); and Dr. Brian Murphy (West Hawaii Explorations Academy).

“We’re very excited about what the future holds for this dynamic, faculty-led student research team,” said APUS Provost Dr. Elizabeth Johnson. “This year-long project enables our undergraduate and graduate astronomy students to gain invaluable research experience.”

The Spirulina Group chose spirulina algae for its many useful properties, including temperature and radiation resistance, and an ability to reclaim wastewater. The microalgae have been shown to support plant health in highly alkaline soils that pose similar conditions to those on the Moon and Mars.

“Spirulina has sustained life forms over billions of years here on Earth and is heralded as a nutrient-rich human superfood today,” said Collette Kakuk, Chief Strategic & Commercial Officer of Cyanotech, which supplies the Hawaiian Spirulina Pacifica for the project through a partnership with the Group.

Dr. Miller worked with AMU graduate student Terry Trevino to launch a pilot study examining how spirulina could be used as a biofertilizer to support the healthy growth of vascular plants in simulated Martian regolith. This initial study, conducted in partnership with APUS’ Analog Research Group (AARG) at the Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH), operated by the University of North Dakota (UND) Human Spaceflight Laboratory, led to APUS receiving the NASA EPSCoR Rapid Response Research (R3) grant through the West Virginia Space Grant Consortium.

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