For long-term space exploration to succeed, self-sustaining life support systems must be developed. Bioreactors using microbial cultures that can convert nitrogen into useful forms have been investigated for this purpose; however, these cultures need to possess resilience to space radiation and microgravity.
Siegfried Vlaeminck and an international team tested the viability of a range of nitrogen-processing microbes after a 44-day flight to low Earth orbit (LEO) aboard the Russian FOTON-M4 research spacecraft.
After the microbes returned to Earth, the researchers were surprised to find that their nitrogen conversion rates were generally higher than the control group of microbes kept at similar temperatures on Earth. A third group of microbes, kept on Earth at 4°C, were the highest performing nitrogen converters.
This research demonstrates the potential of nitrogen-converting microbes for life-support applications and suggests refrigeration as a strategy to maintain their viability.
Read the full paper on Scientific Reports. Cover photo: Dr Hyeon-Hye Kim examining plants in the Kennedy Space Center Space Sciences Lab, which is investigating life support system technology. Image courtesy of NASA.