Maybe you’ve seen it Alone on Mars ? In this 2015 Ridley Scott film, Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, finds himself stranded on the Red Planet for years before the next manned mission arrives. A botanist by training, the astronaut then, with instructions in hand, began growing potatoes inside the only available habitat, a dome designed to ensure the survival of six people for thirty days.
No doubt the astronaut would have had an easier life if he got rid of it “Biobots” in hand. Longer term, the Interstellar Observatory better envisions its farming module in a controlled environment to support the lives of astronauts on long missions to the Moon or Mars, anyway in space.
Hermetically sealed and autonomous
On Tuesday evening, from its office in Ivry-sur-Seine, the French start-up presented its first BioPod. In an American show. Leg-mounted – “This allows for easy installation without any foundation”, notes Barbara Pelvici, head of the Interstellar Observatory – the module, all elliptical, is 7 meters high, 10 meters long and 6 meters wide. Its base, at least of this first copy, is made of composite materials, “more or less the same as those used for the hulls of boats,” we note at Interstellar Labs. The rest are createdAn ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) membraneInflated and transparent.
It is through her that we know what is going on inside. Cultures take place on multiple floors, 55 m² and in an automated and controlled environment. Until the BioPod can recreate the climate of a region very different from where it was installed. And in tanks, there is no land. “The roots are exposed and sprayed with a solution of water and nutrients.”
Everything is hermetically sealed and operates independently. Biopod captures CO2 from the surrounding environment and helps plant growth. As for water, “everything not used by the plant is recovered, treated and put back into the circuit,” explains Interstellar Lab’s Communications Manager Valentin Feist. The power supply is present, and the start is in continuous operation axis. “To date, the biopod has been connected to the electricity grid, but from this point of view, we are working on an autonomous system with portable and low-carbon energy sources”.
Lunar Biopod by 2027?
Is this the biopod that the Interstellar Observatory hopes will one day launch to the moon? “It’s not as bad as it could be,” says Barbara Belvici, noting that there’s still a lot of work to be done to adapt it to spatial constraints. He mentions the agreement that will link the Interstellar Lab with NASA over the next five years to build this Lunar BioPod. But without going into details. “That will be the subject of another announcement in November,” he says.
Alexis Baillet is from Cnes, the French space agency of which he is president Spacecraft Project EN, which aims to produce human and robotic space probes, was not aware of the deal, Barbara Belvici has several contacts in the United States. “But like many other space agencies, we’re working on and participating in these questions about the culture of life in space Challenges initiated by NASA in this regard”.
As for whether Interstellar Lab has taken the lead with its BioPod, Alexis Paillet, again, tempers. “This first version didn’t take spatial constraints into account,” he says. We are already not qualified to send these types of modules into space. The design should also be reviewed. One of the restrictions of growing on the moon is protecting yourself from radiation. Then there cannot be a block with a transparent membrane. »
Earth before space
In short, there is more than five years of work to do. “But this is normal, Alexis Bayle continues. The replication is just beginning and the plans of Interstellar and its competitors are not yet mature. It is unlikely that these culture modules will be needed on the Moon or Mars before 2035.”
Meanwhile, Barbara Pelvisi heads for Earth, where she hopes her biopods will also be of great service. The leader of Interstellar lists the limitations of the current global agricultural system. Its greenhouse gas emissions (about 23% of global emissions), the surfaces it uses (40% of the planet’s land), and its significant consumption of fresh water, etc.
These modules promise to avoid some of these impacts. Water recycling and C02 capture – an average of one ton per year – are not the only benefits Interstellar Lab highlights. “Increase in agricultural yields, less surface area used, no pollution… boasts Barbara Belvisi. And it can be deployed quickly anywhere. There is the question of expected production volumes: “an average of five tons per year per BioPod”, slips Barbara Belvisi. Crops in open fields Not enough to change. But that’s not the goal. “We would never use BioPot to make lettuce in France,” he explains.
Ten biopods will arrive in 2023
On the other hand, the Interstellar Observatory has identified scenarios where its modules could be useful. Parapara BelliVC is starting with the aim of producing food “where the soil is very damaged or where there is a lack of space”. Interstellar Labs is also considering fields that use many natural products, including the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, which grow far from their laboratories. The start-up list includes twelve existing plants Madagascar periwinkle, is cultivated in tropical and subtropical regions “and contains two molecules used in the chemotherapy of many cancers”, notes Barbara Belvici. Finally, the interstellar lab has not forgotten about scientific research that could use biopods to protect endangered plant species or work on crop adaptation to climate change.
In short, there will be a lot to do. Barbara Belvici says she already has 200 Biopod pre-orders. “We will build ten more in 2023, but the idea is to be able to produce 100 a year very quickly”. This is Interstellar Labs’ entire economic model: sell as many biopods as possible to “terrestrial” customers to pursue their dreams of space. But back there, Alexis asks to see Baylet. “We’ll have to see how this biopod performs in harsher conditions than the hangar it’s made of,” he begins. Agricool (another French startup) By growing in converted shipping containers,” he points out.