Are we to believe the BioPod, the future space farm that Interstellar Lab is preparing?

EDIT: After the publication of this article, Cnes, the French space agency, wanted to respond with the voice of Lionel Suchet, deputy director of Cnes. We add his words to the paper.

Maybe you saw Alone on Mars ? In this Ridley Scott film released in 2015, Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, finds himself stuck on the Red Planet for several years before the next manned mission arrives. The astronaut, who is a trained botanist, then began growing potatoes in the only available habitat with the means at hand, a dome designed to ensure the survival of six people for thirty days.

If he succeeds, the astronaut would undoubtedly have had an easier life with a “BioPod” at hand. Ultimately, in any case in space, to support the lives of astronauts embarked on long missions to the Moon or Mars, Interstellar Lab best envisions its agricultural module in a controlled environment.

Hermetically sealed and autonomous

On Tuesday evening, from its office in Ivry-sur-Seine, the French start-up presented its first BioPod at an American show. Mounted on feet – “which makes it easy to install without any foundation”, specifies Barbara Belvisi, president of Interstellar Lab – the module, all in ellipse, is 7 meters high, 10 long and 6 wide. Its base, at least this first copy, is made of composite materials, “more or less the same as those used for boat hulls,” we at Interstellar Lab specify. The rest is made of an inflatable and transparent Ethylene tetrafuloroethylene (ETFE) membrane.

It is through her that we get a glimpse of what goes on inside. Cultures take place on several floors, on 55 m² and in an automated and controlled environment. Until one is able to reproduce the climate of a region very different from the one where the BioPod is installed. And in the bins, no soil. “The roots are exposed and sprayed with a solution of water and nutrients.”

Everything is hermetically sealed and works independently. The BioPod captures CO2 in the surrounding environment to use for plant growth. As for the water, “everything not used by the facility is recovered, treated and put back into the cycle,” explains Valentin Feist, head of communications at Interstellar Lab. There remains the electricity supply, an axis on which the startup continues to work. “To date, the BioPod is connected to the power grid, but we are working on a system that will also make it autonomous from this point of view, with portable and low-carbon energy sources”.

This Tuesday night, startup Interstellar Lab unveiled its first BioPod, a module for farming in a controlled environment that could one day make it possible to grow plants in space. – Fabrice Pouliquen / 20 minutes

A lunar BioPod in 2027?

Is this the BioPod that Interstellar Lab hopes to see one day go to the Moon? “It won’t look bad,” says Barbara Belvisi in any case, specifying that there is still a lot of work to adapt it to the spatial limitations. She mentions a contract that will tie Interstellar Lab to NASA over the next five years to build this Lunar BioPod. But without going into details. “This will be the subject of another announcement, rather in November,” she says.

Alexis Paillet, of Cnes, the French space agency, where he heads the Spaceship FR project, which aims to prepare human and robotic space exploration, is not aware of this contract, although he knows that Barbara Belvisi has many connections in the United States. “But like many other space companies that also work with these questions about the culture of living things in space and participate in the challenges that NASA has launched on the subject.”

As for whether Interstellar Lab has taken the lead with its BioPod, Alexis Paillet, again, temper. “This first version doesn’t take spatial constraints into account,” he says. We are already unable to send this type of module into space. The design must also be reviewed. One of the limitations of growing on the Moon is protecting yourself from radiation. It is therefore impossible to have a module with a transparent membrane. »

Earth before space

In short, there is still work and security for more than five years. “But this is normal, continues Alexis Paillet. The reflection is just beginning, and Interstellar’s as competitors’ projects are still immature. It is unlikely that we will need these culture modules on the Moon or Mars before 2035.” “Linked to the imminent permanent installation of Man on the Moon and later on Mars, a whole process of spatialization of land activities is taking shape,” recalls Lionel Suchet, Deputy Director General of CNES. Cnes supports with interest various start-ups that are positioned in these issues, and Interstellar Lab is one of them. This Biopod materializes a project in a very important and very promising area for space bases: feeding crews with fresh produce. We believe in this project for its ability to meet the needs of manned space exploration throughout the decade, but also for its immediate impact on Earth. »

Because it is actually towards Earth that Barbara Belvisi first turns to Earth, where she believes that her BioPods can also provide many services. The President of Interstellar then lists the limits 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), its significant consumption of fresh water, etc.

These modules promise to avoid some of these impacts. Recycling water and capturing C02, one ton on average per year, are not the only benefits highlighted by Interstellar Lab. “It also means increases in agricultural yields, less land used, no pollution …,” boasts Barbara Belvisi. And it can be implemented anywhere and quickly. There is still the question of the expected product volumes: “About five tons per year on average per BioPod”, says Barabara Bellivisi. Not enough to replace crops in the open fields. But that is not the goal. “We will never use a BioPod to produce lettuce in France”, she illustrates.

Ten BioPods will arrive in 2023

On the other hand, Interstellar Lab has identified scenarios where its modules could prove useful. Including with a view to producing food “where the soil is too damaged or where there is a lack of space”, begins Barabara Bellivisi. Interstellar Lab is also considering the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries, sectors that use many natural ingredients, including plants that grow far from their laboratories. Among the twelve plants already in the start-up’s catalog is the Madagascar periwinkle, which is grown in tropical and subtropical areas “and which contains two molecules that are used in the chemotherapeutic treatment of many cancers”, states Barbara Belvisi. Finally, Interstellar Lab does not forget scientific research, which could use BioPods to conserve plant species threatened with extinction or work on crop adaptation to climate change.

In short, there would be plenty to do. Barbara Belvisi says she already has 200 BioPod pre-orders. “We want to build ten more in 2023, but the idea is to be able to produce 100 a year very quickly”. This is the entire economic model of Interstellar Lab: sell as many BioPods as possible to “earth-based” customers to continue dreaming of space. But there again, Alexis Paillet asks to see. “We will have to see how this BioPod behaves in more difficult conditions than in the hangar where it was created, he begins. It is certainly very beautiful, but this module is not so different from that, Agricool (another French startup -up) made by growing in converted maritime containers”, he points out.

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