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Helping astronauts breathe in space: with RUAG and micro-algae

(10 December 2018 - RUAG Space) One of the top challenges of long-term human space flight is life support. If humans ever want to travel to Mars (or beyond), they will need to minimize the re-supply of essential consumables such as air, water, and food.

This means that technologies need to be developed which enable the recycling of air, water, and human wastes in a so-called closed loop, that is without external interference or help.

Why take algae on space missions?

For many people, algae may trigger images of greenish ponds or memories of getting tangled in seaweed during an afternoon swim in the lake. Others may think about Japanese maki rolls and their distinctive saline flavor. However, algae are also crucial to sustaining life on this planet. Approximately 50% of the world oxygen production comes from algae, rendering them the figurative “lung” of our planet.

As extensively studied under the European Space Agency’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA), these micro-organisms are very efficient at regenerating air using photosynthesis. Therefore, they are particularly well-suited for air regeneration in spacecraft cabins used by the crew. For this, however, specialized photo-bioreactors need to be developed. These photo-bioreactors need to be able to cultivate the algae in micro and partial gravity. They must also be able to control this process over long term missions.

Producing oxygen and food

Owing to its many years’ experience in the development of space bioreactors, RUAG Space’s site in Nyon, Switzerland, has just been awarded with an important project by the European Space Agency to develop a scale-down demonstrator for an air recycling system based on micro-algae, called BIORAT. And this is how it shall work: When the crew activity and air consumption increases, the photo-bioreactor adjusts the illumination for the algae, thereby making them generate just the right amount of oxygen. The BIORAT demonstrator is based on a previous flight experiment called ArtemISS, which successfully demonstrated the core scientific hypothesis. BIORAT is now intended to further scale up the process and increase its efficiency, demonstrating its use with real cabin air.

One of the by-products of all of this is ‘Spirulina’, an edible superfood. So not only will the astronauts be able to breathe quality air, they will also be able to enjoy a nutritious snack on their long voyage.

“It is exciting to be working on technology used in near-future human space exploration,” says RUAG Space CEO Peter Guggenbach. “Securing the air to breathe for the astronauts is really at the heart of a mission.”

The presently awarded contract will result in a prototype of the system. The actual demonstrator mission on the International Space Station is currently foreseen for 2024.

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Spirulina micro-algae which will be cultured in the RUAG air regeneration system (courtesy: ESA).

About RUAG Space

RUAG Space is the leading supplier to the space industry in Europe, with a growing presence in the United States. With around 1,300 staff across six countries, it develops and manufactures products for satellites and launch vehicles – playing a key role both in the institutional and commercial space market. RUAG Space is a division of the international technology Group RUAG. RUAG develops and markets internationally sought-after technology applications in the fields of aerospace and defence for use on land, in the air and in space. 56% of RUAG's products and services are destined for the civil market and 44% for the military market. The Group is headquartered in Bern (Switzerland). It has production sites in Switzerland and in 15 other countries in Europe, the USA and Asia-Pacific. RUAG generates sales of approximately CHF 1.96 billion and has over 9,200 employees – 400 of whom are trainees.