Space exploration repeatedly provides new insight which can also be used on the earth. Now, the focus is shifting to the possibility of establishing life in the universe and preliminary steps area already being taken in this direction. Dr. Klaus Slenkka and his team have been engaged in research and development in this area at OHB for a number of decades.
Currently, space projects such as the ISS are still dependent on receiving the necessary replenishments of their supplies from the earth. However, this will no longer be possible on future or longer space missions. For this reason, scientists are working on self-sustaining bio-regenerative systems.
In many projects at OHB, Dr. Klaus Slenzja, head of life sciences at OHB System AG and chief scientist for OHB’s Blue Horizon joint venture, has conducted research into life under space conditions, many of which have been in partnerships with NASA, DLR, ESA and various research institutes. The most recent development is the establishment of the two companies Blue Horizon Sàrl and Blue Horizon Deutschland GmbH. Blue Horizon Sàrl is a joint venture between OHB and LuxSpace.
Blue Horizon wants to establish biological infrastructures permitting sustainable growth for protracted space missions and stays. This could, for example, take the form of a habitat, an artificially created space for life, on the moon. The products being developed by the company are designed for use on both the earth and in space. As Slenzka emphasizes:
“Everything has to be organic for protracted periods of time in space. Biology is the only form of sustainability that we know. This has to be factored into all designs.”
Even difficult soils can be prepared for plant breeding.
In the case of celestial bodies such as the moon or Mars that do not yet have any vegetation, the soil must first be cultivated using algae. It is important to first create a layer of algae on the lunar or Martian rock because it consists of extremely sharp-edged nanoparticles. As there is no water or wind, these particles are not ground to form round shapes as is the case on the earth. “This means that the roots of the plant will be slashed,” explains Slenzka. “We have started to insert green algae in artificially produced lunar or Martian rock. In this way, we have been able to show that it is possible to grow higher plants on this layer.”
“This is all initially planned for the moon and Mars but would also work in a similar way in the deserts of the earth.”
ModuLES project developing highly efficient photo bioreactors
Special equipment and an understanding of the underlying ecological factors are required to breed algae for preparing the soil. This is where the ModuLES project steps in. ModuLES is short for “Modular Life Support and Energy Systems”. The challenge is to come up with a design that is viable on a sustained basis and does not require the input of any external energy or material. The ModulLES project has developed photo bioreactors to cultivate the algae. Photo bioreactors are highly efficient in absorbing carbon dioxide, producing oxygen and conserving and consuming energy, thus enhancing our understanding of the necessary input and output.
Many regions around the world could benefit from regeneration.
China is also working hard in these areas. This is particularly relevant for the country as the desert is encroaching on some of its cities and business hubs by a few kilometers each year. That’s why regeneration also has an economic dimension: industry is being threatened by the approaching desert. The business community is already committing more funds to these projects than the government is. In Germany, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding various partnerships with Chinese companies and institutions in this area.
In this way, it may be possible to cultivate deserts in a few years’ time. Chinese companies are already injecting algae into the desert rocks and irrigating them.
“The biological matrix makes the ground firmer, preventing it from being eroded by the wind and allowing it to be cultivated again. The remaining ecology then comes by itself.”
Researching the human immune system with Immunolab
The Life Sciences department at OHB is also conducting research into the human immune system: people spending time in space quickly develop a weakness in their immune system. At this stage, it is not known whether this is due to the lack of gravity or the exposure to heightened radiation. However, what has been known for many years is that the immune system becomes compromised. In the Immunolab project commissioned by DLR and conducted in conjunction with Airbus, researchers are developing a technology to determine astronauts’ immune status during the mission. This was previously only possible before or after the mission. For example, the Immunolab can look for interleukins, the body’s own messengers for the cells of the immune system, in blood samples in the same ways as this is done on the earth. Within this project, OHB Life Sciences is responsible for the Kit cassette, the transportable analysis unit for the Immunolab. “For us, the challenge was to develop an entirely new plastic for the bags holding chemicals,” explains Slenzka. “They have to be transparent and completely gastight and must not bind proteins. Working with a company in the United States, we came up with a solution to this problem.”
Other uses of space biology on Earth
The results of these activities will be useful when other planets are colonized or habitats installed on space ships some time in the future. At the same time, it will advance our knowledge of the human body and the possibility of in-situ resource utilization.
Space exploration also has consequences for applications on the earth. Solar technology, navigation systems and also the modern financial services sector directly benefit from developments that have their origins in space exploration. The same thing applies to space biology. “Why do we need an international space station? To perform experiments for space? No, of course not. We have an international space station to perform experiments to advance our understanding of the earth,” explains Slenzka.
“We study human physiology for astronauts but this, too, is not an end in itself. Rather, we search for knowledge that we can also use on the earth. This is important for me as a scientist as the question that we are exploring in human physiology is this: How did gravity form us? Why do we look the way we do? If we know this, then we can also travel to the moon or Mars as we know that the gravity there is weaker. That’s why the German national program is entitled “Research under space conditions”.