Space Algae: A New Frontier

Space Algae: A New Frontier

Written by Michelle Park, Product Developer at Spira, Inc.

(SpaceX/Handout/Reuters)

(SpaceX/Handout/Reuters)

Driving along the coast of the Pacific Ocean while listening to my daily podcast feels a bit surreal.  A cloudless day really brings the blue out from the water. The tall green grass and beautiful flowers dance in the coastal breeze, content with their dream-like surroundings. “I finally made it,” I think to myself.

As I reflect on all the trials and tribulations on my journey to making sunny California my home, the news of SpaceX’s civilian launch into space fills my car. 
I laugh, then sigh as I realize that I’ve only just made it- to one frontier that is. I look past the ocean’s horizon and I’m humbled. There’s so much more we’re in for. And here we are: casual space travel has become a reality. The things once only imagined or portrayed in movies and television are manifesting as a part of our daily lives.

The attention around the expedition has been mixed. The space enthusiasts call this a step in the right direction.

The cynics call this another publicity stunt. 

But what the cynics might fail to see is that this expedition is a crucial component of steady research and development. The implications of this space mission will impact our entire economy. So, while the innovative minds of thinkers and makers are already being flooded with ideas inspired by the Inspiration4’s mission, behind-the-scenes biotechnologists have been working on making them intergalactic.

Think of the most basic needs: food, water, and air. These are the elements that scientists need to help sustain for life to exist in space. And though sometimes we find ourselves struggling to meet these needs here on earth, space travel is the perfect platform to research solutions across different planets.

ALGAE MEETS ASTRONAUT NECESSITIES

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For astronauts to meet their basic nutritional needs, NASA has looked to none other than algae. Spirulina, in particular, is so concentrated in protein and nutrients for humans that it is found to be ideal for long-duration space travel as it strengthens the immune system and promotes overall good health. It is estimated that with its high protein content, algae could replace at least 30% of an astronaut’s food intake. During space travel, numerous physiological components are at risk due to inadequate nutrition. These may include muscular atrophy, bone density loss, and the weakening of the heart. Spirulina is NASA’s pick for keeping these ailments at bay, and several research entities, like The Settles Lab at the University of Florida, are committed to solidifying this (and other) plant’s role in space.

The current research out there tells us that microalgae is a truly viable option when it comes to feeding space travelers for months on end. In addition to their rich health benefits, algae is a sustainable food solution for our environment. Our current food system contributes about 19%-29% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. The resources that go into spirulina’s growth are minimal, and the algae absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows. Land and water usage requirements are also comparatively low next to animal sources of protein like beef and even other plant sources like soy.

THE TOOL FOR THE JOB

Photobioreactors are the main players in algae growth. They are machines that cultivate algae for use in biofuels, carbon sequestration, food, or biomaterials. Photobioreactors take up little real estate, too, which opens up possibilities for local decentralized development, and makes them the main players for contained biological life support systems. There are countless variations of these types of closed-loop systems, including ones being designed specifically for space travel (like the MELiSSA experiment designed by the European Space Agency).

For a closed-loop life support system to work, bioreactors need to convert air, water, and waste to make food and potable water for the users of the system. Think Mark Watney’s emergency “poop to potatoes” strategy from The Martian. Except in a more planned out excursion, photo bioreactors would enable Mark to survive indefinitely on the surface of Mars. The main idea of these closed loop systems is to recycle waste into food, air, and water so that there is no need for re-supply from outside the loop, making a completely self-sustaining circular system and a highly sought-after innovation for space travel.

Scientists and researchers at NASA have already honed in on microalgae (specifically chlorella and spirulina) to be integrated into these closed loop systems on the International Space Station. Under the right conditions, microalgae can be more efficient at photosynthesis than other plants, (10%-20% photosynthetic efficiency as compared to 0.5% of the fast growing land crop, switchgrass), making them not only a robust food source, but also effective at recycling CO2 and creating fresh O2 and biomass. In 2018, an Advanced Closed-Loop System (ACLS) that utilizes chlorella was delivered to the space station as a means of providing food and oxygen filtration. These systems are a big step in researching the immense potential of life support systems in space, however the ACLS was last reported to be dealing with some technical issues.

BACK TO US CIVILIANS

As the pioneers of space travel continue to work out the kinks, Earthling adventurers gear up for their days to finally shoot off into space. Firsthand experiences of scientific exploration before liftoff is crucial to eliminating any expensive waste of resources and time that could otherwise be saved. One intensive terrestrial space program called the Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS) attempts to bring the experience of being an astronaut to Hawai’i by simulating future NASA’s Mars missions. Spira’s very own Gianna Torres and Elliot Roth are HI-SEAS alums. 

Algae-in-Space-Carousel5.pngGianna’s HI-SEAS pancake creations (made of powdered ingredients) included Electric Sky mixed in the pancakes for the added nutrients.

Gianna’s HI-SEAS pancake creations (made of powdered ingredients) included Electric Sky mixed in the pancakes for the added nutrients.

Gianna worked on the Sensoria M3 analog lunar mission, of which Inspiration4’s Dr. Sian Proctor is also an alum. According to Gianna, using Spira’s Electric Sky was a regular part of her eating routine:
“I would say that Electric Sky certainly brightened up the boring routine of bland, freeze-dried food on the mission. I had fun adding it to pancakes and oatmeal (with blueberries) and it was awesome knowing that it had added health benefits and not simply a dye. That part is very important for space missions as it’s such a convenient, lightweight way to add much needed nutrition to what is currently a relatively poor diet, while also enhancing the fun experience of it and breaking up what can sometimes be a pretty monotonous routine in long duration missions.”

Her first-hand account makes it clear that adequate nutrition is a real issue for space missions. “I was so hungry the entire mission! About a week into it I felt really tired, like I wasn’t getting the right nutrition.” The lack of sustainable and suitable sources of nutrients emphasizes the need for further developments into algae’s potential role in these situations. 

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As for Elliot, his experience sparked the creativity in him:

“The funny thing about being in a space habitat is that you construct your own rules, your own routines, your own civilization. It’s extraordinary how little you have in an extreme environment like that, so it’s important to use tools like algae to recycle waste and make food.”


During the SELENE I HI-SEAS mission, Elliot grew spirulina algae on simulated waste, measured the overall CO2 absorption, and passed around samples of fresh algae for a taste test along with numerous other experiments. You can read more about Elliot’s HI-SEAS thoughts here.

 

FUELING THE FUTURE

The Inspiration4’s mission is one of the most noteworthy events of the early 21st Century. Space technology and travel is a burgeoning industry- there’s no doubt that the next landmark innovation is currently underway. To accommodate the growing amount of people traveling to space, microalgae have the potential to be the superior option when it comes to sustaining life in long duration space travel.

Spira is committed to algae advocacy by funneling more resources into the research and development pipeline.