Transporting things to and from space is incredibly expensive, not to mention difficult, which is why researchers are looking for ways to make space stations as self-sufficient as possible. One of the ways that NASA is considering doing this is with genetically modified bacteria that could not only produce food for astronauts, but energy as well. The bacteria could even potentially be engineered to make building materials and drugs.
Matt Damon’s character in The Martian has to grow potatoes in his own faeces to survive on Mars. But there may be more appealing ways to make food in space, like using bacteria to make chemicals we can eat, such as sugar. “The first pilgrims who came to the Americas didn’t bring all their food for the rest of their lives,” says Lynn Rothschild of NASA’s Ames Research Center. “You need to live off the land.” The idea is now set to be put to the test in space for the first time. Genetically modified bacteria will be sent up on a German satellite in 2017 to see if they can survive the launch and cosmic radiation, and function under reduced gravity. The satellite will spin for six months at a speed that simulates Martian gravity, which is one-third that on Earth. It will also test the same bacteria under lunar and zero gravity, to see if they could function on the moon or a space station. The sugar could be turned into not only food, but also fuel. And bacteria could also be engineered to make drugs and building materials (see “Bacterial origami“), slashing a spacecraft’s payload. “Launching things against Earth gravity is extremely expensive. This is the obvious way to break through the problem of ‘upmass’,” Rothschild says.