First UN Satellite Hopes to Turn Astronaut Poop Into Power Supply

The $5 million satellite (UNESCOSat) won’t go into space alone–it will be accompanied by a number of payloads, including two filled with bacteria.



For the first time, the United Nations is planning to make its mark in space with an international satellite designed to promote science education and international cooperation in the sciences. But the $5 million satellite (UNESCOSat) won’t go up alone–it will be accompanied by a number of payloads, including two from the Florida Institute of Technology filled with bacteria. Why?

The first payload is intended to examine the effects of Shewanella MR-1 (a bacteria) in a microgravity environment to determine its suitability for long-term space travel.

The goal is, to put it bluntly, to see if Shewanella can convert astronaut feces into hydrogen for use in onboard fuel cells. “The bacteria generates hydrogen. If we give waste to bacteria, it converts to
hydrogen that could be used in a fuel cell. We’re looking at how reliable the bacteria are,” explains Donald Platt, the Program Director for the Space Sciences and Space Systems Program at the Florida Institute of Technology. Shewanella’s viability will be determined based on its growth rate in space–figuring out, in other words, how different its life cycle is in space than it is on Earth.

The second payload will test the viability of certain bacteria in surviving on the crusts of frozen bodies in the solar system (i.e. the frozen ice caps on Mars) as part of an attempt to evaluate techniques for recognizing evidence of extinct life on future space missions.

Impressively enough, the Florida Institute of Technology went from design to production on its two payloads, which each consist of a storage vessel, a mixing vessel, a solenoid pump, and a testing area, in under three months. Platt attributes the speed to SpaceClaim, an ultra-intuitive piece of 3-D direct modeling software. ” A student may work on [the project] during one semester, then get busy and have to
move on. Other students could pick right up and move forward with the software,” Platt says.

Next up: getting the payloads onto the UNESCO satellite and into space. The satellite is expected to launch in the first half of 2011 and stay in orbit for up to five years. And after that? We may just see Shewanella go up with the next space flight crew.


Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.