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Colonizing Space, 40 Rats at a Time

In preparation for colonizing space, a crack crew of middle-aged rats is colonizing a patch of Barcelona.

Early next spring, an all-female "crew" of middle-aged Wistar rats will find themselves beginning one long Barcelona holiday.

But instead of trolling the Ramblas for tapas scraps, these unwitting rodents may help ensure their human brethren have the chance to pack up and move off world.

In June, the European Space Agency, along with outside European and Canadian research partners, announced the inauguration of an ecological pilot plant that will test closed-loop ecological technologies for eventual use in lunar habitats and colonies on Mars.

Managed by ESA at Spain's University Autonoma of Barcelona, the Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative, or MELiSSA, is based on an "aquatic" ecosystem.

But MELiSSA's five interconnected compartments will span only some 200 square meters. So, don't compare MELISSA with cavernous eco-projects like Biosphere 2.

"We cannot expect the system to stabilize itself," said ESA bioengineer Christophe Lasseur, MELISSA's project coordinator. "We need waste processing, oxygen production, urine transformation and carbon dioxide trapping. MELISSA will engineer the loop to create an ecosystem."

The idea is that over a two-year period, no more or less than 40 rats at any given time will live off the system's recovered food, oxygen and water. In the process, they are expected to consume about one kilo of oxygen per day, roughly equivalent to an astronaut's daily intake.

Using photosynthesis and bacteria, MELISSA should recover food, oxygen and water from human waste, carbon dioxide, minerals, algae and higher plants — including wheat, tomatoes, potatoes, soybeans, rice, spinach, onions and lettuce.

Life scientist Daniel Barta at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston says that a MELISSA-style bio-regenerative type follow-on project on the lunar surface would facilitate the natural elimination of waste without having to input a lot of energy. Barta, who is not affiliated with the MELISSA effort, notes the technology would also have application on Mars.

On Mars, Barta says, astronauts would be there long enough without resupply that such regenerative systems would be absolutely essential. There, he says, the aim would be to implement a non-polluting ecology that would ensure that the red planet remains pristine for science.

But no matter how efficient, an engineered closed-loop environment is hardly anyone's idea of their own private Idaho. Thus, even the rats will certainly be eager to let human "guinea pigs" fulfill the next phase of this long-range undertaking.

That isn't likely until 2018. Actual testing on the moon, Lasseur says, won't happen until sometime after 2025.

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