Experiments involving algae have been taking place on the International Space Station. Photo: courtesy Sierra Nevada Corp.

Tom Fish writes in Express.co.UK that NASA scientists believe algae grown in spacecraft could be key to the success to long-term manned missions, such as planned trips to the Mars.

US space agency NASA is moving toward more deep space missions. In particular, a mission to Mars could require at least a three-year round trip. And a growing consensus of researchers now believe algae could play a vital role in such long-term space missions.

A significant challenge for long-distance human spaceflight is the provision of the essential elements: food, waste removal, radiation protection, water and oxygen.

Mars is approximately 34 million miles from Earth, requiring crews to spend years on a spaceship. And because crews cannot carry everything with them, they will need to grow it in situ.

Research suggests algae could solve this conundrum of long-term space travel. In a 1961 experiment, a man in Russia lived for 30 days in a room of only 4.5 cubic meters, using only algae to convert his carbon dioxide into oxygen. After three days the potentially harmful levels of carbon monoxide stabilized and, after 12 days, so did the methane emitted by his own body.

NASA’s Space Algae experiment on the ISS last year studied the way algae grows in microgravity. “We wanted to figure out an inexpensive way to grow algae in liquid cultures in space,” says Mark Settles, from the University of Florida, who was the principal investigator on the project. “Algae grows fastest in liquids, but there are a series of challenges for handling liquids in microgravity.”

NASA also tested whether certain genetic variations meant algae survived better in space. To do this, NASA created mutations by subjecting the algae to UV light, then growing each different strain for 40 generations.

“We wanted to figure out what genes are really important for algae to grow well on the Space Station” says Dr. Settles. “We are currently characterizing whether we got significantly different strains compared to doing the same experiment on Earth.”

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