Space mission to discover if algae can save our planet

Algae experiments by Casula High School students will be tested on the International Space Station next year. Pascal Adolphe reports.

Students posing for a photo on steps. Students posing for a photo on steps.
Image: Sophie Poisel, Head of the Lang Walker Family Academy, with the Algae Invasion team from Casula High School, from left, Marko Stojisavljevic, Ebony Albao, Aryan Younes and Sahel Mohsiny. Photo: Powerhouse Parramatta.

Algae, and its potential to save the world from global warming and climate change, will be the subject of experiments on the International Space Station, thanks to a group of students from Casula High School.

Year 10 Casula High iSTEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) students, Marko Stojisavljevic, Aryan Younes, Sahel Mohsiny and Ebony Albao, have designed experiments to determine how microgravity influences algae growth.

Their experiments last week won the Powerhouse: Future Space Student Showcase in Parramatta and will now be on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) where scientists will replicate the students’ experiments in 2024.

The Casula High team was among 180 students from six western Sydney public high schools who have since 2022 taken part in Powerhouse: Future Space, a pilot program to design microgravity experiments using NASA-inspired design techniques.

Marko, from the Casula team, said their experiments aimed to address the “drastic” issue of global warming and climate change that could potentially see 410 million people displaced due to rising sea levels. Algae was the obvious solution, he said.

“Our experiment is aimed at finding a sustainable way to produce algae or to make algae reproduce faster. Our hypothesis is that algae will hyper-reproduce in microgravity due to the lack of gravity,” he said.

“Algae already produces 20 to 30 per cent of the air we breathe. They also photosynthesise organisms which means they don’t need other animals or any other food, only sunlight and water. This makes them extremely sustainable.

“And one other thing that makes algae interesting is that, unlike other plants, they’re combined of billions of tiny little organisms called phytoplankton meaning that algae technically isn’t a plant. It’s an animal.”

The Casula team believes that finding a way to reproduce algae faster could be the key to improving air quality on Earth while also finding a cheap way to produce animal feed and biofuels, thereby reducing our carbon footprint.

“In the long term we could also use algae to turn Mars into a green planet. We know this is possible,” Marko said.

“The Earth became a green planet because algae was the first form of life to evolve and it’s what allowed everything else to exist and created our atmosphere. It converted all the methane and carbon dioxide into oxygen, giving us an ozone layer and allowing everything to live.”

The judges said they awarded the top prize to the Casula team’s experiments because they “were addressing the issue of climate change and felt they had a really clear hypothesis and methodology, and they presented well as a team”.

Powerhouse: Future Space is the first program of the Lang Walker Family Academy at Powerhouse Parramatta, in collaboration with the NSW Department of Education and

The program has been designed to align with the NSW curriculum, specifically the elective iSTEM subject for Year 9 and 10 students called ‘Design for Space and Critical Problem Solving’.

Over two years, 180 students from six schools – Arthur Phillip High School, Casula High School, East Hills Girls High School, Hurlstone Agricultural High School, Jamison High School and Seven Hills High School – have participated in the program.

They had to design and develop experiments to advance space exploration and potentially improve life on Earth.

The students came up with an array of experiments, including investigating how microgravity affects microbial resistance, honey production, grasshoppers, the development of insulin, the development of neurons, and the growth of algae, mould and Australian natives.

The Powerhouse: Future Space Student Showcase also included a keynote address from Australian astronomer, Karlie Noon, and European Space Agency reserve astronaut, Meganne Christian.

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