A prototype algae-powered bioreactor will test the technology’s ability to produce oxygen and edible biomass aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The innovative technology could be key to ensuring the viability of long-duration space missions.
The algae-powered bioreactor, dubbed the Photobioreactor, was developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and transported to the ISS aboard the SpaceX CRS-17 Dragon cargo spacecraft. It is designed to use algae to convert carbon dioxide produced by the station’s crew into oxygen and edible biomass.
The Photobioreactor will work in conjunction with the station’s Advanced Closed-Loop System (ACLS). The ACLS was delivered to the ISS in 2018 and is used to extract methane and water from carbon dioxide. The combination of both the Photobioreactor and the ACLS could, as a result, produce every element necessary to sustain a crew on a long-duration mission to Mars and beyond.
“With the first demonstration of the hybrid approach, we are right at the forefront when it comes to the future of life-support systems,” said Oliver Angerer, team leader for Exploration and project leader for the Photobioreactor experiment at the DLR Space Administration. “Of course, the use of these systems is interesting primarily for planetary base stations or for very long missions. But these technologies will not be available when needed if the foundations are not laid today.”
The small Photobioreactor will not be capable of producing enough oxygen for the space station’s crew. However, DLR hopes that the prototype will be a proof of concept for more significant systems that could theoretically be built into the wall of a habitat or spacecraft to optimise space.