WORMS: A Symbiont System

This project was exhibited at King of the Moon Expo, part of Making Up Mars, an evening on scientific and technical ideas related to living on Mars organised by the European Space Agency in Noordwijk (ESA). Institutes involved are WdKA, The University of Amsterdam (UVA) and others. During this, designers and scientists of different fields come together, working and thinking on the ways to colonise Space. 

As the human population keeps growing and arable land is diminishing from the Earth, it is unlikely that humans will be able to remain a single planet species. The colonisation of the Moon and Mars is challenging for both designers and scientists. In this ultra innovative but also speculative domain, designers and scientists meet in their re-thinking of all developing fields like new materials, interaction, products, garments, energy harvesting, recycling of materials and architecture. The speculative design goal of the project is “to create an autonomous system for enhancing terrestrial ecosystems and facilitating atmospheric formation on other planets through artificial photosynthesis.”

Barren ecosystem

The surface of Mars is barren and poor in essential nutrients, such as nitrogen compounds, and the water has an extreme level of salt. This makes growing food on the planet an incredibly difficult task. Aside from that the planets upper surface exists out of volcanic rock, making it harder to penetrate the earth and fertilise the lower layers. During the project we tried to understand whether we could enrich the soil with Earth-born bacteria. What are plants that grow in nutrient-poor soil? And could the genetic line of this plant be used to fertilise martian soil? And if so, how would scientists be able to insert it deep enough into the planets surface?

Seed research

From barren volcanic soil, ESA investigated several different species with the conclusion that known plant species like alfalfa and clover grow well but their growth rate is very slow in deep, barren soil – while the plants themselves already contain the bacterias that help them grow in the first place. Sinorhizobium meliloti is a common bacteria on Earth that naturally forms symbiotic relationships with clover plants, and it is possible to stimulate its growth with even more of this bacteria. Would it be possible to create a system that can contain both the barren soil, a clover seed and this bacteria underground?

A living cultivation system

What lives in the soil back home and is basically a living cultivation system? The earthworm is the planet's own fertiliser. Living on dead plant organics, worms eat this and while chewing mix this with the soil before breaking it down. Afterwards, their poo still contains the organic soil but releases nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium. As they dig quite deep they improve the structure of the soil as well, making it easier for water to reach the fertilised areas. 

Vessel experiment

The earthworm has an interesting way of digging and moving around. It uses two different sets of muscles. Circular muscles loop around each segment, and longitudinal muscles run along the length of the body. When the circular muscles contract, the earthworm stretches, becoming longer and thinner. Earthworms have no senses, other than detecting light and changes in light intensity. They use oxygen that is dissolved in the moisture on their skin.

WORMS, a symbiont system thriving on human breaths

The result of the design research is a Wandering Oligomeric Robot for Martian Symbiosis or WORMS, a small soft-robot that can thrive on human breaths. With the technology of programmable air, the robot has different outer balloons that will store the air and circulates it throughout the robot, allowing it to move forward. Similair to the lifeform, the wormbot exists out of three compartments where it will digest, fertilise and 'eject' the soil at the same time. At the front, WORMS has a small opening where the air sucks in soil. The first compartment will filter the soil and mix this. The second compartment will be a hub for close and long-term biological interaction between the soil, the seed and the Sinorhizobium meliloti bacteria. The third compartment will eject the soil from the back, resuming its place in the canals dug earlier.
The interior is 3d printed from recycled nylon, whereas the outside fabric is made from thicker version of space cloth, keeping in the heat and contributing to a sustainable ecosystem.

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Agata Kołodziejczyk - Research Fellow Advanced Concepts Team ESA
Brigitte Lichtenegger - WDKA Hardware & Programming Advisor
Camie Roos - Research, Concept & Design