The circular economy is launching into space. Researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina recently secured funding from NASA to create a closed-loop system on a spacecraft that could turn astronauts’ feces into food, fertilizer and other useful materials for long space flights.
“Synthetic Biology for Recycling Human Waste into Food, Nutraceuticals, and Materials: Closing the Loop for Long-Term Space Travel” was awarded a $200,000 per year grant, for up to three years, to tackle the space agency’s challenge to feed humans cramped into a spacecraft for months at a time.
Led by synthetic biologist Mark Blenner, the project was one of eight to receive funding at US universities. All of the projects focus on "innovative, early-stage technologies that will address high-priority needs of America's space program," according to a NASA press release.
"These early-career researchers will provide fuel for NASA's innovation engine," said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "Technology drives exploration, and investments in these technologies and technologists is essential to ensure NASA and the nation have the capabilities necessary to meet the challenges we will face as we journey to Mars. The faculty selected and their colleagues help assure a robust university research community dedicated to advanced space technology development."
As space journeys become longer, NASA has been seeking ways to deal with astronauts’ waste and make their aircrafts more self-sufficient. Since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has paid commercial carriers such as Space X to ferry supplies of food to and from the International Space Station (ISS), according to Science Alert. In May, astronauts on the ISS began growing their own red romaine lettuce with LEDs and they held a taste test of the first crop earlier this month. No word yet on how NASA plans to get astronauts to eventually taste-test closed-loop poop.
In addition to food issues, NASA also recently funded efforts to advance 3D-printed habitat for deep space exploration. The agency has also made important contributions to environmental monitoring efforts, launching a satellite to monitor atmospheric carbon dioxide last year and collecting data on global water reserves.