Issue #2(16) 2018 Astronautics

Using algae to support astronauts on deep space missions

LED-lit photobioreactor that cultivates algae under controlled atmospheric pressures, developed at the University of Colorado Boulder.
LED-lit photobioreactor that cultivates algae under controlled atmospheric pressures, developed at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Tobias Niederwieser University of Colorado, Boulder, USA

Among the many challenges to overcome before would-be space explorers can embark on long-duration expeditions to other planets is the problem of how to replenish food and oxygen supplies along the way. Tobias Niederwieser asks if a simple but diverse group of aquatic organisms with the ability to conduct photosynthesis could be one of the solutions. Commonly known as algae, these organisms are not only critical to sustaining life on Earth but they could be the key to providing sustenance and breathable air on board future spacecraft too.

To support astronauts onboard the International Space Station (ISS), we currently resupply about seven tons of water and five tons of food a year. This is in addition to the oxygen that is already recovered from exhaled carbon dioxide, along with potable water extracted from human waste water.

Consider then if we were to use the same technologies currently employed on the ISS for a mission to Mars; if you extrapolate these rates to a four-crew, three-year mission, just the resupply mass itself accumulates to about 24 tons. This is a huge amount and much heavier than the 22-ton payload mass one Space Launch System (SLS) is expected to launch towards the red planet. Even so, this calculation does not account for such things as the crew, systems, landers, etc, all making it seem quite unfeasible to say the least.

To continue reading this premium article, subscribe now for unlimited access to all online content

If you already have a login and password to access - Please log in to be able to read all the articles of the site.

Popular articles

See also


Eating in space: from Michelin-starred chefs to self-sufficiency


Why We Need Space Artists


From the kitchen… to the stars?

Popular articles

An artistic vision of the space debris nightmare. Specials

Urgent action needed to avert space debris threat

Simulation of two merging black holes where the colours represent quantities related to the gravitational waves emitted from the system. LISA Pathfinder is paving the way for the detection of gravitational waves from space. Science

LISA Pathfinder – paving the way for future studies of the gravitational universe

A Soyuz 2.1A rocket lifts off on 27 December from Vostochny Cosmodrome carrying a pair pf Kanopus-V remote sensing satellites and a secondary payload of 26 smallsats arranged by GK Launch Services. Astronautics

Space launch industry analysis