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China to probe long-term life-supporting system in new space mission

By Sun Ye


Water plants that could provide oxygen and food for future long-term space missions, simulations of early Earth conditions that could unveil the origin of life, and super lubricant materials that could drastically lengthen the lifespan of equipment in space, these are part of a number of exciting new science projects that the China Space Station will start shortly after the Shenzhou-18 crew goes into space on Thursday to start their six-month mission.

Professor Cang Huaixing, from the Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), told CGTN that the Shenzhou-18 mission will include three life science experiment projects and one related to material science.

Cang said the aquatic life support system project, which involves a self-sufficient ecosystem that will run in the space station for around one month, will bring forth a number of new understandings.

Professor Wang Gaohong of the Institute of Hydrobiology at CAS is one of the scientists behind the life experiment. Wang told CGTN that the ecosystem experiment comprises four zebrafish and some hornwort. With LED lighting, the hornwort will produce oxygen through photosynthesis, which will keep the fish alive, creating a self-sufficient ecological circulation system.


Wang said this experiment not only provides insights into aquatic life in space but also holds potential for establishing a sustainable food source for long-term space missions.

Wang also said the team is eyeing to scale up the experiment in the future, where fish can live a whole life cycle in space – "from egg to another egg."

Professor Jiao Yuling of Peking University's School of Life Sciences is responsible for a project that investigates plant stem cells' responses to microgravity. He said the goal is to understand and improve plant adaptation to space environments, which may eventually lead to cultivating space-adapted plants that could support longer astronaut stays.

Understanding the origin of life, or the origin of codons, is at the heart of another project that will take place at the China Space Station this spring. Assistant Professor Liu Yan from Xiamen University's College of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering said her team is exploring the evolution from inorganic to organic molecules and the emergence of life, taking advantage of the space station's unique environment that simulates early Earth conditions.

Cang said life science, which also encompasses space medicine, accounts for nearly half of all experiments conducted in the space lab, highlighting its pivotal role in space research.

"The volume and importance of this discipline is obvious, and we look forward to more research results from the China Space Station," Cang said.

A fourth experiment will focus on the development of future-oriented space lubricant materials. Professor Wang Dao'ai from the Lanzhou Institute of Chemical Physics at CAS said his team is hoping to develop ultra-low friction, super-lubricating materials that could reduce energy consumption and extend the lifespan of mechanical equipment in space.

Like previous crews, the Shenzhou-18 crew will be hands-on, carrying out some of the experiments and tests in space.

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