Deep space exploration

Mining rocks in orbit could aid deep space exploration

Early space mining experiments could pave the way for new technologies to help humans explore and establish colonies on distant worlds, a study has found.

Tests performed by astronauts on the International Space Station suggest that bacteria can extract useful materials from rocks on Mars and the Moon.

The findings could contribute to efforts to develop means of supplying metals and minerals – such as iron and magnesium – essential for survival in space.

The bacteria could one day be used to break up rocks in the ground to grow crops or to supply minerals to life support systems that produce air and water, researchers say.

Matchbox-sized mining devices – called biomining reactors – were developed by scientists at the University of Edinburgh’s UK Center for Astrobiology over a 10-year period.

Eighteen of the devices were transported to the space station – which orbits Earth at an altitude of around 250 miles – aboard a SpaceX rocket launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, US, in July 2019 .

Small pieces of basalt – a common rock on the Moon and Mars – were loaded into each device and immersed in a bacterial solution. The three-week experiment was conducted under space gravity conditions to simulate environments on Mars and the Moon.

The team’s findings suggest that bacteria could enhance the removal of rare earth elements from basalt in lunar and Martian landscapes by up to around 400%. Rare earth elements are widely used in technologies such as cell phones, computers and magnets.

Microbes are also commonly used on Earth in the process known as biomining to extract economically useful elements such as copper and gold from rocks. The new experiments also provided new data on how gravity influences the growth of communities of microbes here on Earth, the researchers say.

The study, published in the journal Nature Communication, received funding from the British Space Agency and the European Space Agency. The research was supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, part of UK Research and Innovation. The miniature mining reactors used in the experiment were built by engineering firm Kayser Italia.

Professor Charles Cockell, from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, who led the project, said: “Our experiments support the scientific and technical feasibility of biologically enhanced elemental mining at through the solar system. Although it is not economically viable to mine these elements in space and bring them to Earth, space biomining could potentially support a self-sustaining human presence in space.

“For example, our results suggest that building robotic and human mines in the Oceanus Procellarum region of the Moon, which has rocks with enriched concentrations of rare earth elements, could be a fruitful direction for scientific development. and human economics beyond Earth.”

Dr Rosa Santomartino, a postdoctoral scientist in the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy who worked on the project, said: “Microorganisms are very versatile and as we move through the space, they can be used to accomplish a variety of processes. Elemental mining is potentially one of them.”

Libby Jackson, head of the human exploration program at the UK space agency, said: “It’s wonderful to see BioRock’s scientific findings published. Experiments like this show how the UK, through the intermediary of the British Space Agency, plays a central role in the Exploration Program of the European Space Agency.

“Discoveries from experiments like BioRock will not only help develop technology that will allow humans to further explore our solar system, but will also help scientists from a wide range of disciplines gain knowledge that can benefit us all about Earth.”

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Materials provided by Edinburgh University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.