The democratization of space for the first time allows ordinary citizens easier access to space research thanks to several private companies making it possible to send your experiments and instruments off Earth or even to go into space yourself.
This, together with active plans to build a new space station orbiting the Moon and colonies on the Moon and Mars, means that we will have to solve several challenges on how life adapts to space travel and how life will have to adapt to other bodies in the solar system.
Space biotechnology, an innovative field of research that is just beginning to take its first steps, will be fundamental to the near future of space exploration. Its applications will be countless; as will the opportunities have associated with them. From medicine to food production, from recycling water to producing its own light, space biotechnology will be the game-changer for human life in space.
Whether you are a student, researcher, investor or entrepreneur, here are five great reasons to study this topic.
The Space sector: New Opportunities for All
Private actors are playing an increasingly important role in space activities, taking a place that used to be occupied by states and leading to the so-called New Space.
Space has evolved from an arena only for technological prowess and sovereignty races to one which sees an ever-increasing socio-economic benefit and a wide range of different private enterprises.
Long gone are the days when a ticket to Space could only be paid for those with deep pockets and labs full of rocket scientists!
Today, Space is considered a common good that supports and enables the success and competitiveness of many industries.
The sectors that can profit from space-based solutions are numerous, from agriculture to infrastructure, from urban development to transportation, maritime activities, communication, tourism, banking, defence and security, and the health sector.
In this context, we talk about the Democratization of Space: the full integration of Space into society in a sustainable manner, both environmentally and economically.
Read more: Space Economy - Who is going to win the game?
A New Research Field: Become a Pioneer!
The current moment can be considered a gap between the past industry and one of the future in which Space biotechnology will play a dominant role.
Life in space will become a concrete reality. To be able to survive a long-term mission, we need to transport a lot of water, a lot of food, and a lot of oxygen, but it still needs a constant supply of oxygen, water, food, and medical supplies from Earth to keep astronauts alive.
The encouraging reality is that you can get into space biotechnology from pretty much any scientific background you like because it needs experts from every area from Biological Sciences -be it Botany or Cancer Biology- to Physics, Geology, Astronomy or Chemistry but also at the interface of Medicine, Engineering, Physiology and of course Space Research.
Biotechnology is a very ‘interdisciplinary’ field. It sits as the Venn diagram overlap in the middle of many different kinds of science, and this breadth and diversity are exactly what it makes so exciting!
Growing Space Potatoes
Since we will be sending more mass and more people into space than ever before, growing our own food will be necessary to sustain long-distance space travel. Research groups are currently analyzing how plants behave under the ‘stress of space life’, identifying genes to genetically engineer the plants to grow better in space conditions.
ESA runs tests to grow plants and other foods in space missions, such as spinach, wheat, and tomatoes. The first ones will be potatoes. Researchers are also investigating a genetic engineering technology to make plants resistant to salinity and drought.
But also, many startups on Earth have taken on the challenge of producing meat without the animal — beef, pork, chicken, turkey, tuna (take a look at our article about cultured meat) thus the space diet might not necessarily be restricted to vegetables and algae.
Keeping Astronauts Healthy and Develop a Recycle System
Following prolonged space missions, muscle and bone wasting, inflammatory reactions, and damage resulting from radiation are considered among the major challenges and threats imposed on astronauts. To prevent that, astronauts keep active while in orbit. But they are still at risk of bone and muscle injuries upon their return. In the longer term, astronauts might be able to print their own tissues and organs at will.
Finding ways of recycling all kinds of waste is also important and clean water is essential. In the ISS, up to 80% of the water is recycled from the air and the sweat and urine of astronauts. Still, the crew relies on regular water shipments from Earth. Water is a precious resource in space, as every crew member uses 4 to 6 litres per day, and it costs $50,000 per kilo to launch!
Biotechnology in space it seems more efficient
Weightlessness and microgravity allow better performance in biotechnology and research.
It turns out that 3D printing in space has some advantages. Without the restrictions of gravity, it is possible to print from all sides at once, using magnetic and acoustic fields to keep the cells in place.
There is already talk of labs in the lower atmosphere. Moreover, researchers are already taking protein crystallisation up to space to advance research on important health issues facing people on Earth—where crystals often grow larger and with higher order than on the ground.
To infinity and beyond
What happens if humans want to travel further into deep space, where we cannot rely on a constant resupply?
Working on robotic gardening techniques and having a semi-automated plant growth system will help us prepare for longer stays away from Earth, which experts predict are not that far away in time. Indeed, one of the first steps forward will be the construction of NASA’s Deep Space Gateway; a station planned to orbit around the Moon by 2024. On this station, NASA plans to build a space garden that will test how life copes without protecting the Earth’s magnetic field.
Therefore, Biotechnology seems to be the solution needed to meet all the needs of long-term space missions and finally turn science fiction into science facts.
Find out more about what’s happening right now in the field and get enrolled in the Space Biotechnology course of the School of Disruption.
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