The Artemiss photobioreactor hardware with the spirulina culture inside is quite compact and will run in space for 30 days.

Though the International Space Station is regularly restocked by cargo vessels, like today’s Dragon, self-sufficient spaceflight in the future will require us to recycle and reuse precious resources like oxygen. An experiment in space will soon look into doing just that.

Researchers are studying how photosynthesis — the process by which organisms convert light into energy, producing oxygen as a byproduct — takes place in space. This pilot project is the first of its kind, and its researchers and engineers hope to follow it up with a longer study that continuously feeds in microalgae.

Dubbed the Artemiss project, the astronaut researchers loaded the microalgae Arthrospira, also known as spirulina, into a specially designed photobioreactor. On the Space Station, carbon dioxide will be transformed by photosynthesis into oxygen and edible biomass such as proteins.

Though a routine process on Earth, we must understand how it works in space before we can exploit it, says the mission crew. The experiment will run for a month as the amount of oxygen from the algae is measured.

The microalgae will be analyzed after Dragon returns to Earth next April, looking at the genetic information to build a clearer picture of the effects of weightlessness and radiation on the plant cell. Arthrospira is known to be highly resistant to radiation, but the researchers need to check how well it can stand up to the conditions of space.

The Artemiss project is part of the Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative, or Melissa, effort that is developing regenerative technologies for life support. Melissa covers many research and education activities, such as the AstroPlant citizen science project, which is collecting data on how plants grow under varying degrees of light.