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I'm working on a space story in which an astronaut is travelling to Neptune to validate our CurrentEarth™ corporation's findings regarding our Solar System. The setting is a moving ship similar to the Mars home base in The Martian, but I came across a bit of a boondoggle, he needs to breathe! Being the crafty astronaut he is, he's using hydroponics not only for food on the long journey, but also for his oxygen supply. Ingenious!

A few details:

  • He's an average height (5' 11", 180 cm), weight (195 lbs., 88 kg), and lung capacity (Normal) human male
  • The size of the ship is not a problem (although weight still matters to an extent), he has plenty of funding from CurrentEarth™
  • He needs to be able to constantly do strenuous activity without suffocation
  • He has emergency oxygen supplies that will last for 1 year
  • His ship has been preoxygenated for his trip, so he doesn't have a ramp up time while the plants grow
  • He's really fond of his ficus Wilson

How many plants would it take for my astronaut to breathe while doing strenuous tasks in space?

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    $\begingroup$ Are you sure his ficus isn't named Wilson? $\endgroup$ – Ranger Aug 31 '16 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @NexTerren I didn't have a hard reason for naming his ficus, but now I do. Gratz on naming the ficus in my story! $\endgroup$ – Anoplexian - Reinstate Monica Aug 31 '16 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ I don't have any sources, so I won't put this as an aswer. I remember learning that it takes a hill's worth of trees to produce enough oxygen for 1 person. Furthermore, algae produce far more breathable air than trees. Add to this, it's far more efficient (given spacial confines) to use either mechanical or chemical air scrubbers (which Nasa already has quite some studies and papers on). $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Aug 31 '16 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ What plants, exactly? Or you want most effective plants for the job, plus one Wilson? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Aug 31 '16 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ "using hydroponics not only for food on the long journey, but also for his oxygen supply" is redundant. The amount of CO2 one exhales from consuming food is the exact net amount of CO2 removed from the air to grow that food. (Note that if you're eating meat, the animal already put back some of the CO2 removed by the plants it ate.) $\endgroup$ – Monty Harder Aug 31 '16 at 21:12
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13 square meters

BIOS-3, a sealed, underground compound designed to mimic a spacecraft, managed to generate oxygen for humans using algae. Its specifics are outlined in an article by Salisbury et al.:

  • A crew of up to three people
  • 315 cubic meters of living space (14 m by 9 m by 2.5 m)
  • 3 phytotrons, or algal cultivators, covering 63 square meters
  • Originally, 20 6kW lamps in each phytotron, though this was later increased
  • One catalytic converter, to do partial air purification; the plants did all the rest

Some of these figures are for the original setup; modifications were made to increase efficiency. Later experiments showed that "higher plants" could supply the crew with enough food to survive; they included beets, cucumbers and potatoes. In theory, to meet the full dietary and oxygen needs of one person, you would need 56 square meters of plants; to only meet the full oxygen needs and 35% of the dietary needs, you need only 13 square meters.

Gitelson & Lisovsky (2008) presented a slightly different overview, though with the same numbers. Here's a diagram of BIOS-3 from their paper:

enter image description here

Keep in mind that technology has improved since the BIOS experiments; newer experiments, such as MELiSSA, may show greater improvements. See Nelson et al. (2009) for more information on other tests, and Johansson (2006) for an excellent comparison. There's also a great article on Science2.0.com.

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    $\begingroup$ @Anoplexian That's gas, not gasoline - as in, air. As for the charcoal filter, even if it did need replacements, it's not a big deal to bring enough charcoal with you. The report goes into more detail - the "growing wheat" part was optional, for a scenario where you removed the algal compartment. This also sufficed to recycle enough oxygen, though it required vastly more area (though also providing almost enough food). $\endgroup$ – Luaan Aug 31 '16 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ The algae farm is an interesting idea. In fact some people have already implemented it in a way. Switzerland has started using small algae farms to scrub pollutants from the air above highways. And the charcoal filter is no big deal to replace, a single one lasts a long time. In The Martian (the book anyways, haven't seen the movie) they do a piece of the triviality of that particular component. $\endgroup$ – thanby - reinstate Monica Sep 2 '16 at 12:40
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Humans and animals use oxygen to metabolize our food, while plants produce oxygen while producing food. For example, the amount oxygen produced by a potato plant to produce a single potato equals the amount of oxygen the astronaut will need to metabolize that potato. Therefore, if the astronaut has plants to produce food, and they produce all the food he eats, those plants will produce enough oxygen for him to breathe.

Of course, we must assume a closed stationary system but we need to take in account some deviations from a closed stationary system. Some deviations could cause an excess or a lack of oxygen:

  • Lack of oxygen: Oxygen being consumed for things different than oxidize organic matter produced in the ship. For example, if something in the ship is made of iron and it gets rusty, it consumes oxygen, or if the astronaut eats food from Earth, he will need extra oxygen to metabolize it.
  • Excess of oxygen: If some organic mater produced by plants in the ship is stored, the equivalent amount of oxygen will build up - in fact, that's how Earth's atmosphere got the sizeable amount of oxygen it has now. For example, all plants produce non edible parts (wood, leafs, roots...). If those parts are stored instead of being recycled as compost or burned, oxygen will accumulate. Planting trees is unnecessary.

In summary, the astronaut just need the plants to produce his food. They will produce his oxygen, too.

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    $\begingroup$ +1, this is the correct (and probably the most useful) answer. Of course, some of the oxygen will not be consumed by the astronauts, but by microorganisms that decompose any uneaten plant material and the astronauts' own waste products. But in the end, it must balance out regardless -- in a closed system, the oxygen produced by photosynthesis will always be exactly enough to oxidize all the carbohydrates produced by the same process (and anything else derived from them) back into water and carbon dioxide. $\endgroup$ – Ilmari Karonen Sep 1 '16 at 1:58
  • $\begingroup$ Didn't know about the equivalent food eat/oxygen need - food produced/oxygen produced thing but; does your answer also takes in consideration that plants also breath during "night" ? I mean yes, you could enlighten them all the time but in this case we have to take in consideration the fact that since plants are using the day/night cycle to position themselves during the year, a constant light would be bad at long term (do we really want this for Wilson?). Don't know if I'm fully correct, just questionning around your answer. $\endgroup$ – comicurus Sep 1 '16 at 8:33
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure to understand, you focus on the amount of oxygen the astronaut will need to metabolize that potato, but that ignores the body needs, for example how does this relate to the fact that the whole body will consume oxygen to feed the brain, the muscles, etc. with oxygen? $\endgroup$ – A.L Sep 1 '16 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @A.L Body never consumes just oxygen. It consumes oxygen, carbon and hydrogen. Carbon and hydrogen come from the metaphorical potato. Energy goes to different purposes including varied amount of waste heat, but ratio of oxygen and potato (carbon and hydrogen) atoms is fixed. $\endgroup$ – hyde Sep 1 '16 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ @A.L As hide said, when the body feeds the brain, the muscles, etc., it feeds them with oxigen and food. The body doesn't need oxigen to anything different than oxidizing food, and oxidizing food produces energy to fuell every process in the body. $\endgroup$ – Pere Sep 1 '16 at 20:37
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according to:

This site

a mature leafy tree produces as much oxygen in a season as 10 people inhale in a year.

So a single tree could produce enough oxygen to let breath 40 people (if you have 4 seasons like in European countries) or to let breath 20 people (if you have 2 seasons only like in tropical countries).

However a single tree is not practical because if it dies, you are f****.

The best thing is to have 3 sections in the ship that simulates day/night alternatively (because vegetation during night burn oxygen instead of producing). What you want to achieve is that at any given time you consume as much oxygen as you produce. Have many different plants of different species is another must, you never want all your plants dying because of some disease or some climatic effect of the ship.

To keep the oxygen balance to let plants still grow and your human to not die because of excess CO2 you could just adjust the night cycle by few minutes every day in order to let plants burn/produce more/less oxygen

You'll need roughly 10 square meters per section. (surface taken by a single tree, slightly rounded off) You also basically have one redundant section which can be handy if clever exploited in case of various emergencies (Sure putting more mass in orbit has high cost, but if this travel is really important you want to be sure the pilot don't die).

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  • $\begingroup$ I think a tree would be a bad idea to grow for oxygen because you can't eat a tree. $\endgroup$ – Pieter B Sep 1 '16 at 8:43
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    $\begingroup$ @PieterB but you can eat fruit from a tree, depending on the fruit and if the tree produces fruit $\endgroup$ – gabe3886 Sep 1 '16 at 11:21
  • $\begingroup$ I infact told to use many different plants not just 1 tree, The tree is my "measure sample" to get idea of order of magnitude of vegetation required. Also growing roots may be damaging the spaceship at some degree, better smaller plants with shorter roots. $\endgroup$ – GameDeveloper Sep 1 '16 at 12:19
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    $\begingroup$ @gabe3886 sorry I should have been more precise, if you take a plant where you can use the whole plant for food you keep the carbon cycle intact. With a tree you end up with a lot of the carbon stored in the wood (which you can't eat) and to keep the carbon cycle intact you need to import food and water. If you then choose to like use the wood and burn it, you change your atmosphere. I just meant, a tree would be a particularly bad plant. Other plants would be better. $\endgroup$ – Pieter B Sep 1 '16 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ cool, this is interesting stuff going to read more about that. $\endgroup$ – GameDeveloper Sep 2 '16 at 9:41

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