When its comes to sustenance, astronauts usually have to carry sufficient supplies before embarking on a journey to space. As part of its now-famous Veg-01 experiment, NASA has already grown salad greens, like lettuce, in space. However, green leaves in general do not possess enough calories to be used as the sole source of sustenance, while in space. Consequently, a team of scientists has come up with an innovative way of growing food in low-gravity situations, in the form of sugar-producing bacteria.
The answer, according to the researchers, is PowerCell – a genetically-modified variety of the plankton, known as Anabaena, which relies on photosynthesis to produce sugars using carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. Led by Lynn Rothschild, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the team has genetically programmed the microbe to excrete some amount of the sugars it generates. This sugar can then be used as food as well as fuel. Speaking about the project, Rothschild said:
The first pilgrims who came to the Americas didn’t bring all their food for the rest of their lives. You need to live off the land.
To test the efficacy of their PowerCell system in microgravity, the scientists are planning to send a batch of the genetically-modified bacteria into space in 2017, on board a German satellite. To that end, the researchers have also engineered another microbe, known as Bacillus subtilis, to turn dark red in color, when exposed to these sugars. Thus, any sugar, produced by PowerCell, will then be easily detected by means of a specially-designed on-board sensor.
According to the team, the satellite will orbit in space for a total of six months, at a speed that mimics Martian gravity. It will also simulate lunar and zero gravity situations, as a way of testing the bacteria’s performance on the moon as well as a space station. Once the test period is over, the satellite will burn up in the atmosphere, and therefore won’t have to return to the Earth. The experiments aims to see if the genetically engineered microbes can function properly, even when subjected to cosmic radiation and the extreme forces during the rocket’s launch.
Another question that the experiment will try to answer is whether the spores of the Anabaena microbes will germinate properly when rehydrated on the orbiting satellite. What is more, the bacteria could also be modified to produce necessary drugs and even building materials. The goal of such research, according to Rothschild, is to help reduce a spacecraft’s payload, for easier and less fuel-intensive launching. She added:
Launching things against Earth gravity is extremely expensive. This is the obvious way to break through the problem of ‘upmass.
Via: New Scientist