Astronaut Food For Mars/Space Food/Astro Food To Sustain Life

On December 12, 2017, the SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket will take off from Kennedy Space Center Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to rendezvous with the International Space Station (ISS) on Friday morning. The very first bioreactor developed by microbiologists from SCK•CEN, Belgium Nuclear Research Center, with the European Space Agency and the scientific consortium MELiSSA, is on board the Dragon capsule. After ten years of intensive research, this a crucial step in developing an oxygen and food production system for astronauts during long-term missions. #JourneyToMars

In order to achieve long-term space missions to Mars, SCK•CEN researchers are working on a microbial waste recycling system which enables astronauts to produce oxygen, drinking water and food autonomously when flying into space. Carried out with the help of the European Space Agency and a consortium of international experts, the MELiSSA project tries to find a way to replicate basically how the micro-organisms work when recycling on earth.&

It involves spirulina, a cyanobacteria, capable of producing oxygen and food. The Belgian researchers have already sent spirulina several times in orbit with the ESA astronauts. ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti ate the first food containing spirulina in space, and now the knowledge is being applied to a pilot project in Congo as a food supplement.They will study the behavior of spirulina and the production of oxygen via a bacterial culture under microgravity and space radiation conditions.

Image: Spirulina ESA
Image: Spirulina ESA

Spirulina is one of the tiniest, oldest and most robust forms of life on Earth. This photosynthetic cyanobacteria produces about 60 % of the oxygen on Earth. Under the microscope, the bacteria has the appearance of a small green coil, hence the name ‘spirulina’ (in LatinArthrospira sp).

Spirulina occurs naturally in East and West Africa, Mexico and South Asia, among other areas, and can be harvested from natural salt lakes.

Rich in essential nutrients

In the West, we mainly know spirulina as a food supplement, and as a booster for the immune system. This green treasure is also extremely rich in essential nutrients, including:

  • Vitamins A, C, E, K, B1, B2 and B6
  • Minerals: calcium, magnesium, and iron
  • High-quality proteins that can easily be assimilated
  • Essential fatty acids GLA, DHA, and EPA
  • Antioxidants

The protein concentration of spirulina is ± 70 %; the highest of all foodstuffs! This makes spirulina ideal in cases of protein deficiency in the diet, which is typical in developing countries. But even more important are the high quantities of iron and vitamin A, the two elements that are mainly missing in cases of malnutrition.

Preparing for long missions far from Earth, astronauts will need to harvest their own food. ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative team, or MELiSSA, is looking at creating a closed ecosystem that continuously recycles waste into food, oxygen, and water.

The Arthrospira bacteria – better known as spirulina – have been a staple part of MELiSSA for many years because they are easy to grow and multiply rapidly. The bacteria turn carbon dioxide into oxygen and can be eaten as a delicious protein-rich supplement. They are also highly resistant to radiation found in outer space. A series of experiments will fly the Arthrospirabacteria and cultivate them in the Biolab facility in ESA’s Columbus laboratory to see how they adapt to weightlessness.

“It is a world’s first!”, claims Natalie Leys enthusiastically who has been staying in Cape Canaveral, Florida, since 24 November with two other SCK•CEN researchers in order to prepare this scientific mission.  “We have waited so long for this moment: this bioreactor will provide us with crucial data for our research and allow us to get closer to our final objective which is to contribute, one day, to the first mission to Mars.”

Nathalie Leys Photo: SCK-CEN
Nathalie Leys Photo: SCK-CEN

Aboard the ISS, the Italian astronaut Paulo Nespoli will be in charge of following-up the experience and communicating the intermediary results to the team of Belgian researchers working at the Kennedy Space Center. The bioreactor will stay within the ISS station for a month before coming back to earth and immediately be taken back to SCK•CEN’s laboratories by Natalie Leys’s team.  



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