To enable future living on Moon or Mars, the SCKCEN microbiology team works with the European Space Agency (ESA) on the ‘MELiSSA’ bioregeneratie life support system. It is a system combining physiochemical techniques as well as biological processes targeting complete air and water regeneration as well as food production, from waste recycling, in space. The microorganisms inhabiting the bioreactors of the system need to perform their tasks as optimally and reliable as possible, as the astronauts life will depend on it. Therefore we study the impact of chronic exposure to cosmic radiation and altered gravity in space, on the cells and the bioprocess. Small scale experiment containers have been developed to test the growth and behavior of bacteria in space, i.e. onboard the International space station.
In this project we focus on the cyanobacteria residing in the last compartment of the MELiSSA loop, i.e. a photo bioreactor, responsible for biological O2 production and air revitalization for the habitat. We will work with the edible cyanobacterium Limnospira previously known as Arthrospira, or under the form of Spirulina products. Our aim is to understand the behavior and metabolic processes of this cyanobacterium while grown in a space compatible photobioreactor, and to control the efficient oxygen production during remote continuous bioreactor operation in space; a set-up which has never done before. The bioreactor will be tested in space, onboard the International Space Station, with the support of ESA and Belspo, under a continuous feeding regime, over multiple generations. If successful, it will be a first-of-a-kind and an important step forward towards the successful transplantation of a part of the photosynthetic ecosystem of Earths to space, for biological oxygen production and air revitalization for future habitats on the Moon and Mars.