National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Date of this Version



Life Sciences in Space Research 3 (2014) 63–75


U.S. Government Work


Microalgae have great potential to be used as part of a regenerative life support system and to facilitate in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) on long-duration human space missions. Little is currently known, however, about microalgal responses to the space environment over long (months) or even short (hours to days) time scales. We describe here the development of biological support subsystems for a prototype “3U” (i.e., three conjoined 10-cm cubes) nanosatellite, called GraviSat, designed to experimentally elucidate the effects of space microgravity and the radiation environment on microalgae and other microorganisms. The GraviSat project comprises the co-development of biological handling-and-support technologies with implementation of integrated measurement hardware for photosynthetic efficiency and physiological activity in support of long-duration (3–12 months) space missions. It supports sample replication in a fully autonomous system that will grow and analyze microalgal cultures in 120μL wells around the circumference of a microfluidic polymer disc; the cultures will be launched while in stasis, then grown in orbit. The disc spins at different rotational velocities to generate a range of artificial gravity levels in space, from microgravity to multiples of Earth gravity. Development of the biological support technologies for GraviSat comprised the screening of more than twenty microalgal strains for various physical, metabolic and biochemical attributes that support prolonged growth in a microfluidic disc, as well as the capacity for reversible metabolic stasis. Hardware development included that necessary to facilitate accurate and precise measurements of physical parameters by optical methods (pulse amplitude modulated fluorometry) and electrochemical sensors (ion-sensitive microelectrodes). Nearly all microalgal strains were biocompatible with nanosatellite materials; however, microalgal growth was rapidly inhibited (~1 week) within sealed microwells that did not include dissolved bicarbonate due to CO2 starvation. Additionally, oxygen production by some microalgae resulted in bubble formation within the wells, which interfered with sensor measurements. Our research achieved prolonged growth periods (>10months) without excess oxygen production using two microalgal strains, Chlorella vulgaris UTEX 29 and Dunaliella bardawil 30.861, by lowering light intensities (2–10μmol photons m−2s−1) and temperature (4–12˚C). Although the experiments described here were performed to develop the GraviSat platform, the results of this study should be useful for the incorporation of microalgae in other satellite payloads with low-volume microfluidic systems.