Microcosm on orbit

Мікрокосм на орбіті
Photo: Фото: Depositphotos

Ukrainian scientists plan to perform unprecedented experiment in the field of space biology and to set the timing record of the stay of plants in space

If Elon Musk told that he will establish a colony on Mars – then so be it. Indeed, he has created “Tesla” and even multi-stage rocket, which will fundamentally cut the cost of space conquest. Why not a colony on Mars?

If only because there are questions of principle that are yet unresolved. For instance, “what to breathe?” and “what to eat?”. If you fly into space for several weeks or months, you may take oxygen reserve and food reserve with you.

But if you want to establish a permanent colony outside the Earth – no matter on Mars, on Moon or on Titan, you will have to learn how to produce food and extract oxygen by yourself. On Earth, plants are dealing with this – for over two billion consecutive years now. Even if you are vehement meat-eater, you shall understand there is no meat without plants (yes, we have heard about hamburgers from stem cells, but they are not in stores yet and they do not resolve space colonization issue).

“No matter where we will create extra-terrestrial colony, we will have to equip it with small biosphere”

No matter where we will create extra-terrestrial colony, we will have to equip it with small biosphere. In lay terms, to build kind of hermetically sealed greenhouse, in which plants using the light (after all, the Sun is shining on Mars too) will produce oxygen out of water and carbon dioxide, and will feed people with their harvest as well. One would think that it’s as easy as apple pie. But it is at first sight – we are still far from creation of such ecosystems. But space biologists are working towards this goal.

Space on Earth

It’s rather costly affair to perform experiments in space and only wealthy countries may afford it. It’s bloody difficult for Ukraine to enter this club. Once in a rare while this happens, as in the case of the flight of Leonid Kadeniuk in 1997, when he oerfirmed biological experiments aboard of American spaceship “Columbia”.

Borys Rassamakin

As of today, two nanosatellites, created by the scientific group of Borys Rassamakin, are circling around the Earth.

It is fortunate that space conditions may be simulated on Earth too. For instance, special devices are used for this – clinostats, with the aid of which plants are forced to “believe” that they are in microgravitation conditions. Such experiments are very important too – they cost next to nothing compared to space flights and may be performed as long as it is necessary. And this is exactly what is being done in other countries.

In Ukraine several scientific institutions study the influence of space flight conditions on plants and among them – M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and M.M. Hryshko National Botanical Garden of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. And still, none of the simulations will ensure 100 percent change of the real space.

During one of the scientific conferences Borys Rassamakin from Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute offered to perform some kind of biological experiment on his next satellite. As of today, two nanosatellites, created by his scientific group, are circling around the Earth. PolyITAN-1 was launched in the summer of 2014 from the Russian launch base “Yasny”, and PolyITAN-2-SAU – in April this year from the Cape Canaveral cosmodrome.

Distinct advantage of nanosatellites – their small dimensions and low weight. This means that they may be launched “in bulk” several dozens at a time, and the cost of the launch may be divided between all the participants.

But exactly what kind of experiment? Who may be “accommodated” in satellite as big as one-liter bottle or bigger? Yelyzaveta Kordium from M.G. Kholodny Institute of Botany arrived at decision that microcosm may be launched to orbit. Precisely this – “microcosm” – this is a scientific term, and bears no relation to philosophy. In plain language, this is the simplified model of ecosystem. Such models may be different and may look differently.

PolyITAN-1 was launched in the summer of 2014 from the Russian launch base “Yasny”, and PolyITAN-2-SAU – in April this year from the Cape Canaveral cosmodrome.

Distinct advantage of nanosatellites – their small dimensions and low weight. This means that they may be launched “in bulk” several dozens at a time, and the cost of the launch may be divided between all the participants

Forest in the bottle

Ірина Харитонова

Iryna Kharytonova holds microcosms in each of her hands

Hermetically sealed three-liter bottle is stored in one of the buildings of M.M. Hryshko National Botanical Garden of the NAS of Ukraine. Through the walls of this bottle one may see the green leaves.

— Something like what happens in an ordinary forest is happening here, – Iryna Kharytonova, Senior Researcher of the Allelopathy Department, told.

Leaves are dropping off, bacteria and fungi “process” them, and chemical elements turn again into plants. And this is happening for over 10 years. This is an example of a microcosm. Its key inhabitants are various species of orchids (they are the favorable object for long-lasting space experiments). Walls became dirty from the inside due to algae, but under all circumstances no one shall clean them. Ecosystem “knows” by itself what is better for it – that’s why it is still alive.

Experiment in three-liter bottle has cracked all timing records of botanical garden, and thus far, no one is going to stop it. And in the neighboring laboratory Iryna Prokopivna shows six more bottles. They are smaller and “younger” – experiment in them lasts about a year. Neighbors for succulents, bromeliads and ferns were chosen at random to understand what species of plants have a good life “beneath the same roof”. Afterwards we may turn our focus toward the orbit.

“Leaves are dropping off, bacteria and fungi “process” them, and chemical elements turn again into plants. And this is happening for over 10 years. This is an example of a microcosm”

However, ordinary bottle cannot be launched into space in a nanosatellite – special hermetically sealed block is needed.

Bottles

Plants of different families were put into each bottle to understand what species of plants have a good life “beneath the same roof”.

Ideal home

“90% of the success of the experiment will depend on the hermetically sealed block design.” – Vasyl Brykov, cell biologist, said. He works at Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy of the Institute of Botany, headed by Yelyzaveta Kordium.

“One of the most challenging tasks – to select composition of flight “members”. It is highly likely that orchids will be the first to fly into space”

Vasyl gathered and headed the group of young scientists able to implement this project. The team consists of representatives of Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, the Institute of Botany, M.M. Hryshko National Botanical Garden, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the Nature Research Centre (Vilnius, Lithuania) as well. In June this year their project took the third place in “Youth Competition of Advanced Projects” held by Council on Space Research of NAS of Ukraine.

General idea of ​​the project is rather simple. As a rule, biological experiments in space require sophisticated equipment and participation of human, who shall constantly maintain all this. However, microcosm may “live his own life” – in an ideal scenario, of course.

Vasyl Brykov

Vasyl Brykov looks after soybean sprouts, for which microgravitation conditions were simulated

Hermetically sealed chamber, in which plants will fly into orbit, will be as big as one-liter bottle. In space such ecosystem shall be provided with light, heat and circulation of air inside. Moreover, if so desired, scientists will be able to change these indicators during the flight. And one of the most challenging tasks – to select composition of flight “members”. It is highly likely that orchids will be the first to fly into space, but exactly what kind of species – are still to be defined.

The experiment will be simultaneously started in space and on Earth – here will be the same cameras under the same conditions and with the same “population”. In order to understand what is happening in hermetically sealed space chamber it will be equipped with sensors for temperature, humidity, COlevel and an infrared camera.

In an ideal scenario space experiment indicators will be close to check indicators on the Earth. But in a real-case scenario they may differ essentially: for instance, development of plants will be worse, or they will die. If this is to happen, it is important to understand – particularly why.

New Garden of Eden

Experiments with the microcosms and aboard the nanosatellite have never been performed before, and Ukrainian scientists may be the first. The ultimate goal will be reached if ecosystem endures under space conditions during three years. But even one year – will be great success.

Of course, as of yet we shall not expect that this experiment will result in something prominent like bananas or watermelons grown in an orbital greenhouse.

“We would like to create a new platform for space biology researches, – Vasyl Brykov said. – It will not be such top-class like those, used on the ISS. But it is cheap and this is its unconditional advantage. I hope that in the future nanosatellites will be widely used for experiments on plants under space conditions, and this will probably allow for the space colonization.”

All we need is to find financing for this project. Theoretically speaking, medal place in competition of the NAS of Ukraine gives a chance to raise funds for the project as a part of space program for 2018-2022. But Vasyl Brykov is not too confident in this perspective and is ready to seek for the financing from other sources. According to Borys Rassamakin, he will seek funds within “Horizon 2020” program.

“The only we need is to find financing for this project”

If our spaceships ever go to distant planets, and if we establish settlements there, they will look like the Earth in miniature. This will be new Garden of Eden. To understand the laws under which it will be arranged, nowadays we shall look attentively at what is happening in three-liter bottle with dirty walls.



Leave a Reply