Eu:CROPIS – short for Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-food Production in Space.
Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

A satellite is slated for launch later this year that will conduct plant growth experiments in both lunar and Martian gravity.

The spacecraft is Eu:CROPIS – short for Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-food Production in Space. Eu:CROPIS is an experiment by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR).

Rotational force

During its mission, the Eu:CROPIS spacecraft will rotate around its own axis at an altitude of over 370 miles (600 kilometers), initially producing the gravitational force of the Moon within it for six months, and will then replicate Martian gravity for another six months.

During this time, tomato seeds will germinate and grow into small space tomatoes under the watchful eye of 16 cameras.

Tomato seeds will germinate and grow into small space tomatoes under the watchful eye of 16 cameras.
Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

An entire group of microorganisms contained in a trickle filter will use synthetic urine to produce a nourishing fertilizer for the tomatoes; euglena will also be transported on board to supply the hermetic system with additional protection against excess ammonia and to produce oxygen.

LED light will be used to provide the day/night rhythm that the euglena and tomato seed require. A pressure tank will replicate the Earth’s atmosphere.

Local source of fresh food

The satellite, to be lofted via a SpaceX Flacon 9 booster this year, will be controlled by the German Space Operations Center (GSOC), which is operated by DLR in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich, while the ground station in Weilheim, among others, will handle communications.

“Ultimately, we are simulating and testing greenhouses that could be assembled inside a lunar or Martian habitat to provide the crew with a local source of fresh food,” explains DLR biologist Jens Hauslage, head of the scientific part of the mission in a press statement. “The system would do this by managing the controlled conversion of waste into fertilizer.”

Eu:CROPIS spacecraft undergoes testing.
Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

Hauslage notes that in a lunar habitat, for instance, the greenhouse would be located in the astronauts’ ‘home’ in a simulated Earth atmosphere. Urine would be one of the waste products the astronauts would produce in abundance. Here, the plants would have to adapt to reduced gravity conditions – the gravitational pull on the Moon is approximately one sixth of what it is on Earth, and on Mars it is around one third.

Space test of technology

Once Eu:CROPIS and its scientific payload reach space, the first stage will be to activate the greenhouse that will simulate a lunar environment. The second greenhouse with Martian gravity will be activated six months later.

By this time, the microorganisms, tomato seeds and euglena will have been exposed to cosmic radiation for six months. That’s the equivalent to a flight to Mars. The DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine will measure the radiation exposure inside and outside the satellite throughout the entire mission.

DLR technicians work on Euglena and Combined Regenerative Organic-food Production in Space experiment, to be launched later this year.
Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

“We are using Eu:CROPIS to space test technology for use in habitats on other celestial bodies, but it could be installed just as well in a terrestrial setting,” says Hauslage.

For instance, trickle filters can be fitted to make manure more effective and less odorous. Recycling urine in conurbations, for instance in greenhouses installed in high-rise buildings (vertical farms), would be another possible use.

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