Any long-term space mission would benefit greatly from producing food at the destination rather than sending it up from Earth. Breaking the bonds of gravity is an expensive endeavor, and every bit of mass increases that cost. Right now, space missions need to carry all the food needed when they launch. Growing it could make human space exploration much more feasible.
The German team is testing the idea that bacteria might be able to produce food, which would be even more efficient than growing heads of lettuce. The satellite will carry a number of experiments to test conditions on Mars, so it’s going to be spinning to simulate gravity on the red planet.
The organisms in the study will be a strain of cyanobacteria called Anabaena. Cyanobacteria are a group of bacteria that sustain themselves with photosynthesis, just like plants. They’re sometimes called blue-green algae, but they’re bacteria. It’s not clear if these organisms will be viable in space after they’re rehydrated, but there’s only one way to find out.
The Anabaena cells that will be used are from a strain that has been genetically modified to excrete some of the sugar it produces. A second type of bacteria known as Bacillus subtilis will be on-board as well. This bacterium will be modified to process the sugar molecules into a red pigment, which can be detected by the satellite’s sensors. This is just a proof of concept — astronauts will need more than sugar to survive, but those sugar molecules could be the start of something big.