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Name: Pam Burkardt
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Question:
Hi, I am Pam Burkardt, a seventh grader at Fox Chapel School. I have a question on algae. I read somewhere that someday people might take bath tubs full of algae onto spaceships to provide oxygen for the crew. How much oxygen does algae give off, is this really possible?



Replies:
I think that most of the oxygen in the atmosphere comes in fact from one-celled plants in the oceans, like algae. They are likely to produce a lot of oxygen per unit weight because they don't have non-photosynthesizing bark, roots, branches, etc., nor (I think) a major dormant period like temperate-zone plants. The cost of space travel at present is dominated by the expense of heaving weight up into Earth orbit (it costs very little extra to send it to the Moon, for example, or Mars). For missions of short duration the weight of the compressed oxygen you need to carry is less than the weight of algae, water and extra plumbing you'd need to carry if you relied on algae to produce your oxygen. The important use of green plants would be in very long duration space flight (years) or permanent inhabitation of worlds like the Moon, where you need an unlimited supply of oxygen. Now if you want to fantasize, Venus' atmosphere is almost all carbon dioxide. Suppose you dropped a whole lot of specially gene-tailored one-celled plants into the atmosphere (not the surface, it's too hot). Why then they might eat up all the carbon dioxide and produce a breathable atmosphere. The "greenhouse effect" would go away, and Venus would become a nice habitable if tropical world only 50 million miles away.

Christopher Grayce



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