Mining rocks in orbit could aid deep space exploration

November 10, 2020

The first mining experiments conducted in space could pave the way for new technologies to help humans explore and establish settlements on distant worlds, a study suggests.

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 aid efforts to develop ways of sourcing metals and minerals - such as iron and magnesium - essential for survival in space.

Bacteria could one day be used to break rocks down into soil for growing crops, or to provide minerals for life support systems that produce air and water, researchers say.

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

Eighteen of the devices were transported to the space station - which orbits the 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 submerged in 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 bacteria could enhance the removal of rare earth elements from basalt in lunar and Martian landscapes by up to around 400 per cent. Rare earth elements are widely used in technologies including mobile phones, computers and magnets.

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

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, received funding from the UK 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 company Kayser Italia.

Professor Charles Cockell, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Physics and Astronomy, who led the project, said: "Our experiments lend support to the scientific and technical feasibility of biologically enhanced elemental mining across the Solar System. While 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 the construction of robotic and human-tended mines in the Oceanus Procellarum region of the Moon, which has rocks with enriched concentrations of rare earth elements, could be one fruitful direction of human scientific and economic development 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 into space, they can be used to accomplish a diversity of processes. Elemental mining is potentially one of them."

Libby Jackson, Human Exploration Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency, said: "It is wonderful to see the scientific findings of BioRock published. Experiments like this is show how the UK, through the UK Space Agency, is playing a pivotal role in the European Space Agency's exploration programme.

"Findings from experiments like BioRock will not only help develop technology that will allow humans to explore our Solar System further, but also helps scientists from a wide range of disciplines gain knowledge that can benefit all of us on Earth."
-end-


University of Edinburgh

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.