There is one crucial thing that people need to make sure about: astronauts having sufficient supplies on space missions. Food needs to get to locations such as the International Space Station (ISS), which means going to expensive resupply launches, but also they need to make sure that astronauts have enough water and oxygen, as well. For all those reasons, microalgae will play an essential role in efficient life support in space.
Astronauts also need to make sure that they get sufficient nutrition from the food they are eating there. Ideally, they need to grow their own food at the space station. However, plants strangely react when it comes to microgravity. That means that it is not easy to grow vegetables or fruits successfully.
What they are dealing with, the life support system used in space presently uses chemical reactions to create water and oxygen and to recycle carbon dioxide. However, a new system could use the algae to make oxygen water and, why not, food.
How vital are microalgae for efficient life support in space?
These tiny plants are called microalgae, and they can remove the concentrated carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, turn it into oxygen and plant matter, by using photosynthesis. People from the Institute of Space Systems in Germany have shown a specific type of microalgae, called Chlorella, which is up to ten times more efficient at doing photosynthesis than any other plants.
The biomass of Chlorella is a popular food supplement, and it can actually contribute to a balanced diet because it contains proteins, many vitamins – B12 including, and unsaturated fatty acids.
The microalgae are being grown on the board of ISS for about 180 days, to see if it is stable enough and if it can produce oxygen and food in the long run. After this happens, the sample will be returned to Earth, where scientists will be able to investigate the real effects of the microgravity on the plants.