The report Oïkosmos, obtained by newspaper Le Temps and presented by UNIL to the conference NipConf in Lausanne on Friday, says Switzerland has the scientific, technological and industrial capabilities necessary to create a closed artificial ecosystem to test the viability of humans travelling to Mars.
It would be impossible for a shuttle to Mars to carry enough food, air and water to sustain a team of four to six people over the 1,000 day journey, therefore participants must be able to produce their own food and recycle water, air and rubbish in a closed environment.
A simulator in Switzerland would enable scientists to test ways of doing this, and at the same time develop technologies beneficial to us here on Earth.
For the moment the European Space Agency hasn’t initiated any such project, but if it did, Switzerland would be in “pole position” to host it, says the report.
The idea is not a new one, writes Le Temps, and exists in part at the International Space Station.
But producing food in a closed environment is highly complex, and various space agencies have had only limited success to date.
A project named Melissa launched back in 1989 led to the creation of a closed ecosystem simulator in Barcelona in 2009 which will be tested with rats in 2015, but nothing has yet been initiated for humans.
“The ultimate step will be to construct on Earth a similar installation capable of reproducing the specific constraints of a closed environment, but for humans this time,” Théodore Besson, co-author of Oïkosmos, told Le Temps.
After having studied the infrastructures present in Romandie, the biologist feels that Switzerland would be the ideal place to create such a simulator, both because of the resources available and the interest that innovations in recycling and sustainable resources would create here.
“This would be a very fertile and synergetic place for it,” he said.
“We have around a hundred research groups in the region who would benefit from such an installation.”
Academics, researchers and private companies in the fields of microbiology, engineering, IT and physiology could all benefit, he said.
Volker Gass, director of the Swiss Space Center at EPFL, agrees.
“This is a sensible conclusion, because Switzerland is well known for its ability in matters requiring accuracy and in miniaturization technologies, two very useful skills for such a project.”
However the costs involved mean that as yet no space agencies have initiated such a project.
And it would be a strategic error to embark on a simulator for humans before testing with animals has been completed, and before there is a real international will to do so, experts told Le Temps.
“But there’s nothing stopping us profiling the region,” said Philippe Moreillon, vice-chancellor of UNIL.
In the meantime, the university will officially join the dozen-strong consortium of partners in the Melissa project on November 20th.