The “Euglena Combined Regenerative Organic food Production In Space”, in short Eu:CROPIS, is a new mission for the DLR Compact Satellite program. As example of expertise in the field of gravitational and molecular biology it is conducted as cooperation between the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine and the Cell Biology of Plants Department of the University of Erlangen. Eu:CROPIS is a biological life support system experiment which deals with stability and self-sustainability under different levels of acceleration.
The science case of the Eu:CROPIS mission was enhanced by an international cooperation with NASA Ames Research Center (ARC, Astrobiology Institute). The DLR Compact Satellite is developed by the DLR Institute of Space Systems and features the concept of a multipurpose bus which can be specifically adapted to a wide range of mission scenarios and scientific user requirements. Under the maxim of “doing big science on small satellites” the nominal mass of the bus is limited to 250kg, including payloads, to ensure cost effectiveness in extraterrestrial research. The nominal mission duration is planned to stay below 24 months. Mission operations are carried out by the German Space Operations Center (GSOC) utilizing DLR ground infrastructure.
One of the central issues addressed by life sciences at present time is the analysis of how cells and entire organisms are able to integrate a multitude of stimuli and environmental information and react in a meaningful and sensible manner. The questions on establishing a stable equilibrium is also of vital importance for bio regenerative life support systems. The attractiveness of life support systems is also founded on the option of their useful integration into existing metabolic cycles on spaceships, submarines and other isolated environments. This would enable the recycling of waste of different kinds, the production of oxygen and last but not least food production. The visionary idea that one day human beings could live permanently or at least for elongated periods of time on other celestial bodies involves, among others, the question of the options for human nutrition and oxygen supply, as well as creating a psychological stable environment, that means offering a ‘little piece of home’. Again the basic question has to be answered whether if and how such systems are able to operate under reduced gravity or in which way they have to be modified.
The Eu:CROPIS experiment will serve the purpose of feasibility and technology demonstration in the field of life support systems and gravitational biological research, thereby incorporating most up-to-date molecular biological analysis methods and image processing in space. For the first time the envisaged Eu:CROPIS mission within the DLR compact satellite program offers the opportunity of researching coupled biological life support systems under different values of gravity (space, moon, mars) utilizing state of the art methods for image and molecular analysis.
A major problem in manned space flight is the processing of urine. Today urine is used only for the recovery of the contained water. This dead end situation for raw materials and resources has never been utilized in a closed recycling system. The urinary solutes are, after proper conversion, best suited for plant fertilizing. Urine of habitat residents can be used to grow fresh fruits and vegetables. Eu:CROPIS shall prove this concept under varying conditions of gravity (open space, moon and mars).
Currently, the Institute of Aerospace Medicine in the German Aerospace Center DLR is doing extensive research on a system which produces ready to use fertilizer solution from urine and biological waste for plant breeding. In addition, the cleaning and decontamination rates of biological filters are examined and tested for their performances. The core element of the C.R.O.P. system is a microbiological trickle filter made of lava rock. The lava rock is used as a habitat for a variety of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa. The high degree of adaptability of this system in respect to organismic diversity allows a usage for the degradation and detoxification of various substances passing through the filter tube. The filter is able to adjust dynamically to the supplied substances by selective reproduction of the organisms that can degrade and utilize these substances as their food base.
It is known that a bio-filter system like the C.R.O.P. filter is able to stabilize an aquatic as well as a hydroponic plant system. The proposed experiment takes advantage of this principle property.
The reduction of waste is a crucial point in times of growing megacities and increasing populations. C.R.O.P. contributes by reducing biodegradable waste and offers a possibility to grow vegetables and even animal protein in apartment spaces. Additionally the system enhances air quality by cleansing and humidifying. Facilities following the principles of C.R.O.P. in agriculture diminish the amount of organic residues and pre-process fertilizing solutions.