Right now, astronauts have to subsist on supplies they take with them to space. But a new project is set to test whether sugar-growing bacteria could create sustenance for space travellers in low-gravity situations.


If The Martian taught us anything, it’s that relying on supplies can sometimes be risky. But while NASA is already flirting with the idea of growing lettuce, green leaves alone will never provide enough calories to sustain an astronaut. Enter sugar-producing bacteria.

In 2017, reports New Scientist, a German satellite will head in to space carrying genetically modified bacteria know as PowerCell. That’s a cool-sounding name for a genetically tweaked plankton called Anabaena, and it uses photosynthesis to create sugar from carbon dioxide, water and sunlight, then excretes a little of it, which can be harvested for use. Yum. (Aboard the satellite, though, a microbe that turns red in the presence of sugar will be used to check production levels.)


Hopefully PowerCell will be able function as well in space as it does on Earth. Conditions, however, will be hostile. While the satellite itself will rotate to produce different gravitational pulls—mimicking, at different points, Mars, the Moon and zero-G— there’s no guarantee that it will be able to function consistently in low gravity. And then there’s the forces of launch and cosmic radiation to unsettle things, too.

Researchers are hopeful it will work, though, not least because a renewable food source like this could dramatically reduce the payloads required at launch. Plus Matt Damon’s character might get an easier ride if The Martian ever becomes reality.

[New Scientist]


Image by NASA