DARPA takes first steps towards biomanufacturing capabilities in space

(Nanowerk News) The DoD has a role in orbital and lunar missions as defined by the US Space Force (USSF) Space Capstone Publication (PDF). In this document, USSF notes the "inherent value of the space domain and the tremendous influence space has on U.S. prosperity and security."
There is a critical DoD need for the continued development and future expansion of orbital manufacturing to enable and ensure supply chain resiliency, sustained technological superiority, and asset security and repair for current and future operations.
To meet this unique challenge, DARPA announced today that it was taking an initial step to explore and de-risk manufacturing capabilities that leverage biological processes in resource limited environments with its Biomanufacturing: Survival, Utility, and Reliability beyond Earth (B-SURE) program.
B-SURE program logo
Imagine you are going to space. There is a long list of items and supplies you will definitely need, but there is an even longer list of things you might need, depending on how your mission progresses. This includes unforeseen needs like fuel for unexpected maneuvering, replacement parts or tools, and a wide range of other products that could be useful, but may not be utilized.
The current paradigm in space is to pack everything you might possibly need, but this approach is complex and logistically burdensome1.
Imagine instead that you pack only fermentation equipment, feedstocks, and a freezer full of microbes that each convert the feedstock into a different useful molecule, material, or product so you have everything you might need and can produce it on demand. This is the eventual goal of space biomanufacturing; bring the microbes and equipment you need to manufacture a wide range of raw materials or products that become critical during the course of the mission.
Biomanufacturing offers a novel approach for in-situ manufacturing in far-forward locations, including space. While biomanufacturing has the potential to provide DoD-relevant molecules and materials and alleviate supply chain burdens associated with space operations, realizing this capability requires fundamental, investigational research to inform future applied research efforts.
To accomplish this goal, B-SURE will collect data on the microbial utilization of space-based alternative feedstocks, optimization of microbial growth in variable gravities, and mitigation strategies for identified effects of galactic cosmic radiation on microbial growth and bioproduction.
“DoD currently has no space-based manufacturing capability. All resources or equipment needed for a given mission are manufactured on Earth and shipped to space,” stated Dr. Anne Cheever, B-SURE program manager. “The B-SURE program is an important first step in addressing fundamental biomanufacturing questions to develop this capability.”
The 18-month effort involves three tracks to meet program goals. Track 1 “Alternative Feedstock Utilization” will determine which alternative feedstocks can be consumed by host organisms and at what quantity and purity levels. Track 2 “Variable Gravity” will identify the impact of variable gravity on cellular performance in the context of biomanufacturing parameters and how terrestrial analogs predict on-orbit molecule production. Track 3 “Variable Radiation” will discover the effects of variable radiation on microbial molecule production. Program proposers may choose to respond to one or more tracks.
B-SURE performers will have the opportunity to engage with U.S. Government and DoD stakeholders, as well as appropriate regulatory authorities. Teams are also expected to collaborate with ethical, legal, societal implications (ELSI) experts.
“The B-SURE program is a fundamental study that will explore adapting microbes to space conditions. As a proof of concept, the microbes will produce reporter molecules with the hope that eventually this technology will enable in-space production of molecules relevant to space flight,” added Cheever.
Additional details of the program schedule and metrics are available in the broad agency announcement.

Notes

1) NASA Life Support Baseline Values and Assumptions Document. NASA/TP-2015–218570/REV1
Source: DARPA
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