Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

May 14, 2001

U of G launches research to sustain life during deep-space missions


Life on Mars is one step closer to reality today. The University of Guelph officially opened its Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility and launched a new element of the country’s space program — sustaining life in deep space.

It is the most sophisticated and unique facility of its kind in the world in the field of advanced life support. The facility will have the highest level of Canadian technology in controlled environment systems research, eventually containing 14 of the plant science world’s most sophisticated hypobaric (reduced pressure) chambers. The chambers – the first of which was introduced today – will allow researchers to study the contributions of plants in supporting human life during long-term space missions such as that to Mars. “Now that Canada’s robotic arms are doing their jobs in orbit, advanced life support for long missions into deep space is the next phase,” said project leader Mike Dixon, a plant agriculturist who has been studying how to sustain life in space for more than 15 years. “We’re going to Mars in the next 20 years. This facility will allow the University to promote new and emerging technologies and participate in partnerships exploring space technology.”

It is certain that future human exploration of space must be based on a biological life-support system, Dixon said. Currently, space-mission vehicles are able to carry just enough air, food and water to keep crews alive for short missions. But during long space missions, the needs of the crew can be met only by developing renewable life-support systems based on plants and micro-organisms. Plants are the most efficient means of sustaining life in space. They provide food and add oxygen to the atmosphere by removing carbon dioxide and helping eliminate polluting byproducts. They also help provide water and recycle waste.

“We believe that to choose our future, we must lead the way,” said U of G president Mordechai Rozanski. “This unique facility definitely puts us at the forefront of the frontiers of science. It also allows us to foster collaborative interactions among European, American and Canadian specialists, helping us create and transfer new knowledge.”

The new facility and hypobaric chambers will allow researchers to rigorously monitor the effect of growing plants at various pressures to sustain life in orbit. It will also support research in indoor air quality, recycled water, waste remediation, selection and breeding of plants in controlled environments, and the development and testing of new sensor technologies. The $7.9-million research facility was funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI); Ontario Innovation Trust (OIT); Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA); Centre for Research in Earth and Space Technology (CRESTech), an Ontario Centre of Excellence; as well as numerous industrial supporters. “Investment in the facilities, equipment and technology – in short the tools for research – will help increase the capability of the University when it comes to research and innovation,” said OIT chair Michael Gourley.

David Strangway, president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, added: “The launch of this new facility is a vibrant example of what the CFI was created to accomplish by strengthening our capacity to innovate. It will give a tremendous boost to the global leadership of the University of Guelph, of Ontario, and ultimately, of Canada.”

While Ian Rowe, president and CEO of CRESTech, said “Dr. Dixon's work wonderfully illustrates the innovative technology being developed in Ontario universities. We're proud to have helped initiate the public-private partnerships that are creating this new niche for Canada's space program."

Representatives from several international space agencies attended the building’s opening and are holding meetings in Guelph this week to discuss the future of advanced life-support research. They include the Canadian Space Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, European Space Agency and National Space Development Agency of Japan.

For more information, contact:
Prof. Mike Dixon,
Department of Plant Agriculture
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 2555

For media questions, contact:
Communications and Public Affairs,
519-824-4120, Ext. 3338.

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