SCK•CEN sends first bioreactor into space

On 9 December, the SPACEX-13 rocket will take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to land on the International Space Station (ISS). The very first bioreactor developed by microbiologists from SCK•CEN, jointly with the European Space Agency and the scientific consortium MELiSSA, is on board. After ten years of intensive research, this unique experience represents a crucial step in developing an oxygen and food production system for astronauts during long-term missions. One step closer to the so coveted planet Mars.
In order to, one day, 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.
           

The daily dose of ionizing radiation is far more important in space than on earth and has a direct impact on the astronauts and bacteria found in space. With the support of the FPS Science Policy (Belspo), the microbiologists of SCK•CEN have been preparing this space experiment for ten years. It involves spirulina, an intriguing cyanobacteria, capable of producing oxygen and food. The Belgian researchers already sent spirulina several times in orbit with the ESA astronauts. They now look to go a step further in their project: on 4 December, the very first photobioreactor will be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) to study the behaviour of spirulina and the production of oxygen via a bacterial culture under microgravity and space radiation conditions.

 

Photo: Wietse Heylen (left) en Ilse Coninx (right)

        


 Photo: Nathalie Leys

 

“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.”

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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