earth-science

Recipe for an EcoSphere®

Recipe for an EcoSphere®
Ecosphere, clear glass sphere about two-thirds fill of water, with pebbles in the bottom, algae, reef-like skeleton, and tiny red shrimp.

EcoSphere®.
Image courtesy of Ecosphere Associates, Inc.

Many years ago, NASA scientists were studying ways to build spaceships that could keep astronauts alive for long space journeys. They wanted the environment inside the spaceship to maintain itself, producing food and oxygen for the crew and keeping the air and water clean and reusable. As part of NASA's experiments, they discovered how to make a self-contained living world inside a closed glass container.

Because these tiny, living worlds were so beautiful and helped people understand about the balance of nature, NASA gave the technology away so that these little worlds could be made and sold in great numbers. The tiny worlds are called EcoSpheres®.

Close-up of tiny red shrimp.

Tiny red shrimp that live in the EcoSphere®.

The EcoSphere contains water, air, tiny shrimp, algae (a green plant), and bacteria. It also contains tiny branches, shells, and rocks so the shrimp have places to hide and the bacteria have surfaces to cling to. The Ecosphere container must be transparent, so light can shine in to be the energy source for the whole system.

Here's how it works:

Animated diagram of EcoSphere life processes cycle.

Diagram courtesy of Ecosphere Associates, Inc.

  • Light (sun or artificial light) makes the algae grow.
  • Algae produce oxygen and food for the shrimp.
  • Shrimp eat the algae and "breathe" the oxygen.
  • Shrimp produce waste—carbon dioxide from "breathing" and solid waste from eating.
  • The bacteria feed on the waste from the shrimps' digestion, breaking it down into nutrients.
  • The algae use the nutrients and carbon dioxide (and light energy) to grow back, so the shrimp will have yet another meal.
  • And 'round and 'round goes the cycle for the shrimps' life span, which can be several years!

As long as nothing disturbs this balance (such as too much heat or too little light), everything lives in harmony. Just as on Earth.

Earth from Apollo 17.

Earth, as photographed by the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972.


Earth itself is a big, very complicated EcoSphere. It has air, water, land, and life. It has the Sun for energy.

Every part of Earth's ecosphere depends on every other part. For example, if some of the seaweed in the oceans dies, fish will have less oxygen, because seaweed produces oxygen. If a volcano erupts and puts a lot of soot into the atmosphere, the wind could spread the particles for thousands of miles. Less sunshine would get through, so the air temperature could be colder for a while. Also, less sunshine means plants would not grow as fast, nor produce as much oxygen. How much water is frozen as ice has a lot to do with Earth's climate and how living things thrive and adapt to their environments.


Note on the Ecosphere®:

Occasionally, information on a particular product that demonstrates how NASA-developed technology has been put into use may be included on a NASA web site. Any such mention of a commercial products on this web site should not be regarded as an endorsement or recommendation by NASA.

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