Resource recycling and production of food, oxygen and water is crucial for long-term human spaceflight. CIRiS contributes through research and development towards future life support systems based on biology. Our activity spans from plant physiology to advanced hydroponic cultivation systems for space and Earth, hand in hand with our contributions within Technology Development and Operations.
Plants, water and nutrients are important keywords for the CIRiS life support activity, representing fundamental, scientific understanding of plant physiology together with improved technology for monitoring and control of crop cultivation systems.
In parallel with space projects, CIRiS exploits synergies between space and Earth applications including research and development within the agriculture and aquaculture industries. These synergies include concepts and technology for plant cultivation and resource recycling, with the aim of improved resource utilization and industrial food production with reduced environmental footprint.
Food, water and oxygen are essential for human spaceflight
Life support systems cover basic needs for humans in space, providing food, water and oxygen. An astronaut needs about 5 kg of these essential commodities daily, illustrating a challenge of bringing the supplies needed for a long-term mission. Regenerative life support systems aim at recycling, converting waste products back into supplies. Machines on the International Space Station convert much of the carbon dioxide and dirty water back to oxygen and drinking water. However, currently in Space, machines do not produce food.
Bioregenerative life support systems are miniature ecosystems
Bioregenerative life support systems are inspired by ecosystems on Earth. Animals, microorganisms and plants make up a biological resource cycle. Microorganisms break down organic waste and provide nutrients. Through photosynthesis, plants feed on nutrients, carbon dioxide and (dirty) water, to provide food. Along with food comes oxygen to breath and water vapor that may be condensed to pure drinking water.
CIRiS cultivates higher plants in Space – and on Earth
CIRiS aims at bioregenerative life support systems through life science research and development. Hand in hand with technology development and operations, we enable and execute space and ground experiments, we do theoretical work, and we explore and exploit the synergies between space applications and sustainable food production on Earth.
Hydroponics, soil-less cultivation systems, are much used for ground experiments and represents a possible cultivation strategy for space. By recirculating the water/nutrient solution in a closed liquid loop, these systems minimize loss of resources. In parallel with saving resources, this brings along challenges as toxic compounds may accumulate and nutrients may deplete. Monitoring and control of the water quality becomes essential. At CIRiS, we therefore plan, develop and test strategies and solutions for improved hydroponics, at this topical intersection between biology and technology.
Earth and Space applications support each other
Efficient resource utilization is not only in demand for space applications. The Earth’s resources are limited, and both consumers, politicians and industry call for increased food production with smaller environmental footprint. Bioregenerative life support systems for space were inspired by Earth ecosystems in the first place, but may also bring mind-sets, technologies and concepts back to Earth.
At CIRiS, we are inspired by the synergies between space and Earth applications. For terrestrial hydroponics, today a considerable industry for the production of for example tomato, cucumber and herbs, we pursue the potential of improved monitoring and control for resource-efficient production using recirculating systems. And inspired by the need for resource recycling in Space, we contribute towards a circular economy where by-products from one process become input factors to another process. Our research therefore includes for example coupling of complementary industries such as fish farming and plant cultivation for improved resource utilization.