Heading to Mars? Think about packing microbes before food and building supplies

It’s expensive and difficult to get cargo anywhere in space. For astronaut colonists who need to bring basic supplies to build a home on a foreign planet, that’s an especially big challenge.

A potential solution is using on-hand materials instead of bringing them. For example, on a lunar mission, giant 3D printers could build structures out of moon dust instead of shipped-in wood beams.

A team of Bay Area researchers took that mindset a step further this week when they released a study that proposes using microbes to produce just about everything: food, fuel, building supplies and more. Astronauts could bring (or produce–turns out human feces contains some very useful microorganisms) all of the microbes necessary to process the elements available at their new home into usable substances. That would allow them to drastically cut down on how much room is needed for basic supplies.

The microbes would produce everything by taking advantage of readily available gases and materials. That might be the carbon dioxide breathed out by astronauts or the silicon in Mars’ soil. The study focused on the creation of fuel, medicine, food and building supplies, and reached the conclusion that microbes could:

  • Reduce the amount of fuel a spacecraft needs to carry by 56 percent.
  • Cut how much food needs to be carried by 38 percent.
  • Allow the 3D printing of structures, cutting the weight of supplies by 85 percent.
  • Create pharmaceuticals on demand.

The research is still in its early stages. The team, which draws its members from the University of California-Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and NASA Ames Research Center, stated the paper is meant to make the case for investing in overcoming current roadblocks to using microbes. There are other challenges, too, such as the lack of some basic elements on Mars and the moon. Those challenges could increase the amount of supplies that need to be shipped in or require the development of workarounds.

So if you’re thinking about becoming an astronaut, don’t be surprised if you someday find yourself easting tasty, tasty Spirulina bacteria for breakfast.