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An ecosystem in a box - Technology Org

An unusual package was delivered to a hotel in Beijing, China, in 1987 containing a batch of blue–green algae that would spend five days in space in a capsule. The ESA-led MELiSSA project was on its way.

Ecosystem Earth: ESA astronaut Samantha Christoforetti took this image of our planet from 400 km high on the International Space Station. She commented simply: “Good night from space.” The blue haze seen on the curved horizon is our thin atmosphere that provides the air we breathe and protection from space radiation. Copyright ESA/NASA

Ecosystem Earth: ESA astronaut Samantha Christoforetti took this image of our planet from 400 km high on the International Space Station. She commented simply: “Good night from space.” The blue haze seen on the curved horizon is our thin atmosphere that provides the air we breathe and protection from space radiation. Copyright ESA/NASA

The algae survived their trip around the world and, a quarter of a century later, the teams are close to testing a nearly closed ecosystem that will support life forms with almost no external resources or waste.

Along the way, the project has spawned spin-offs that purify water with little energy, improved wine-making and created new foods for astronauts.

MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) is investigating ways of producing food, water and oxygen on long manned space missions with limited supplies. The goal is to support the human exploration of the Solar System, as well as meeting pressing challenges on Earth.

“MELiSSA is a good example of how we do things right,” notes Franco Ongaro, ESA’s Director of Technical and Quality Management.

An example of Nostoc bacteria in a petri dish. The blue–green algae spent five days in space in a Chinese capsule, marking the start of the ESA-led MELiSSA project. The algae survived their trip around the world and, a quarter of a century later, the teams are close to testing a nearly closed ecosystem that will support life forms with almost no external resources or waste. MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) is investigating ways of producing food, water and oxygen on long manned space missions with limited supplies. The goal is to support the human exploration of the Solar System, as well as meeting pressing challenges on Earth. Image credit: Proyecto Agua via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

An example of Nostoc bacteria in a petri dish. The blue–green algae spent five days in space in a Chinese capsule, marking the start of the ESA-led MELiSSA project. The algae survived their trip around the world and, a quarter of a century later, the teams are close to testing a nearly closed ecosystem that will support life forms with almost no external resources or waste. MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) is investigating ways of producing food, water and oxygen on long manned space missions with limited supplies. The goal is to support the human exploration of the Solar System, as well as meeting pressing challenges on Earth. Image credit: Proyecto Agua via Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Working towards closed-loop life-support relies on scientists from diverse disciplines and MELiSSA covers a large community of industrial companies, universities, research centres, scientists and students from all over Europe, and has produced more than 200 peer-review scientific papers.

A productive cycle

Although MELiSSA aims to keep astronauts alive and well on deep missions into our Solar System, 25 years of research is bringing results and benefiting people on Earth right now.

More than 1.8 million cubic metres of water are treated daily in Europe using its technology, and the sparkling wine industry has improved their products with biomass sensors derived from MELiSSA.

ATV's particulate control team follows common ‘Space Station Programme’ requirements detailing the acceptable conditions of habitable internal ISS surfaces as well as air quality. Checking surfaces comes down to close-up visual inspection to a set distance and angle, backed up by bright lighting, to ensure they are contamination-free to a set ‘visibly clean – sensitive’ level. Crucial outside surfaces are checked to an equivalent level, including all optical instruments – such as laser range finders as well as star trackers – onboard thrusters and the docking system with ISS: any layer of dust might prevent a solid seal from forming. This image shows the visual inspection of the ATV-4 interior. Copyright ESA/CNES/Arianespace

ATV’s particulate control team follows common ‘Space Station Programme’ requirements detailing the acceptable conditions of habitable internal ISS surfaces as well as air quality. Checking surfaces comes down to close-up visual inspection to a set distance and angle, backed up by bright lighting, to ensure they are contamination-free to a set ‘visibly clean – sensitive’ level. Crucial outside surfaces are checked to an equivalent level, including all optical instruments – such as laser range finders as well as star trackers – onboard thrusters and the docking system with ISS: any layer of dust might prevent a solid seal from forming. This image shows the visual inspection of the ATV-4 interior. Copyright ESA/CNES/Arianespace

Bacteria that it has earmarked for astronauts to grow in space for food is now showing potential for lowering cholesterol levels around the world.

The team’s knowledge of bacteria made them ESA’s experts on ensuring microbial cleanliness of ESA’s supply ferries for the International Space Station.

Testing the system in Spain

A new facility is now being built in Barcelona, Spain to demonstrate how fresh food, water and air can be produced through biological processes with no waste or external inputs.

“The high-tech facility has the highest quality standards to comply with industry and space requirements,” says Christophe Lasseur, ESA’s project manager. “What we are doing is the essence of sustainable development: recycling, water recovery and industrial ecology.”

“We are busy right now preparing experiments for ESA missions to the International Space Station.”

The MELiSSA pilot plant at the University Autònoma of Barcelona, Spain. The facility was inaugurated on 4 June 2009 by Spanish Minister for Science and Innovation Cristina Garmendia, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and University rector Ana Ripoll. MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) is investigating ways of producing food, water and oxygen on long manned space missions with limited supplies. The goal is to support the human exploration of the Solar System, as well as meeting pressing challenges on Earth. Copyright UAB

The MELiSSA pilot plant at the University Autònoma of Barcelona, Spain. The facility was inaugurated on 4 June 2009 by Spanish Minister for Science and Innovation Cristina Garmendia, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain and University rector Ana Ripoll.
MELiSSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative) is investigating ways of producing food, water and oxygen on long manned space missions with limited supplies. The goal is to support the human exploration of the Solar System, as well as meeting pressing challenges on Earth. Copyright UAB

ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will fly his 10-day mission in May, tasting a series of protein-rich snacks made from Spirulina algae and basic crops, as well as monitoring fluids at microscopic levels and bringing biological samples back to Earth.

Soon afterwards, ESA astronaut Tim Peake will test ArtEMISS on the Station, a mini-photobioreactor that will verify the use of algae in spacecraft life-support systems. Algae show potential for producing both oxygen to breathe and food to eat for astronauts in space.

“We are looking into the future. Let’s give MELiSSA another 25 years,” concludes Christophe.

Source: ESA

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