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Space scientists look to nature

By Xin Dingding  (China Daily)

14:40, May 02, 2012

Algae and snails may provide enough oxygen for long missions

Algae and snails are helping scientists develop a system to ensure oxygen and food for astronauts on long space missions.

An experiment, involving two types of algae and three snails, was conducted in the Shenzhou VIII spacecraft in November. The spacecraft orbited for 17 days.

One of the snails survived in a designed micro-ecosystem, signaling preliminary success for the experiment, Liu Yongding, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the experiment's designer, told China Daily in an exclusive interview.

Studying and researching algae photosynthesis in space will help scientists design systems that provide oxygen, Liu, from the academy's hydrobiology institute, said.

Astronauts currently rely on oxygen in canisters while food is stored onboard or delivered by cargo spacecraft. But if human beings are to explore Mars or other planets, with missions spanning months or years, then oxygen must be generated through biotechnology, he said.

"Providing oxygen and food through biological methods is the answer," he said.

China plans to build a space station around 2020 and deploy astronauts to live in it for months. It is also eyeing Mars and other planets though manned missions are not yet on the agenda.

Scientists at the institute have developed a system that sees 1.5 cubic meters of algae produce enough oxygen for a man, weighing 70 kilograms, to survive in an enclosed space for one day. The experiments must now determine what role gravity played.

"It still remains a question whether the microgravity in space will have any impact on the photosynthesis of algae and consequently affect the amount of oxygen produced. We need to do experiments in space to find out," he said.

Considering what is at stake, the experiment is quite straightforward. An opaque container is filled with nutrient solution. The container has two parts, separated by a special film that allows penetration of oxygen and water.

In the lower part is euglena, an algae provided by Germany.

In the upper part is chlorella, another algae provided by the institute.

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