Future space miners working on Mars or the Moon could be using bacteria to extract useful metals and minerals from rocks rather than drills and tools, study finds.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh designed experiments to run on the International Space Station that proved using microbes to recover valuable resources could work in zero or low levels of gravity.
These forms of microbes life are already used on Earth to mine for gold, copper and uranium but experts weren’t sure if they’d also work in lower gravity environments.
The team soaked basalt samples – a rock typically found on the Moon and Mars – in a bacterial solution over three weeks and found it could extract rare minerals.
Named ‘BioRock’, the technique brings human settlements on distant worlds a step closer as it will make it easier to create shelters and supports from local resources.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh designed experiments to run on the International Space Station that proved using microbes to recover valuable resources could work in zero or low levels of gravity
Astronaut Luca Parmitano places biomining reactors into a centrifuge onboard the International Space Station
Professor Charles Cockell, of the University of Edinburgh, who led the ‘BioRock’ project, told MailOnline that the space station experiment was a ‘scientific proof of concept’ that could one day be used scaled up to useful levels.
‘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,’ said Professor Cockell.
‘For example, our results suggest the construction of robotic and human-tended mines in the Oceanus Procellarum region of the Moon,’ he added.
This region ‘has rocks with enriched concentrations of rare earth elements, could be one fruitful direction of human scientific and economic development beyond Earth.’
NASA plans to return astronauts to the moon in 2024 – with the aim of establishing a colony and sustainable return visits over the next decade.
The plan is that the Moon will serve as a launch pad for the first manned missions to Mars at some point in the mid-2030s.
Both Mars and the Moon are rich in essential metals and minerals – such as iron and magnesium, Edinburgh researchers explain.
The journey to Mars will take between seven and nine months, but Cockell told MailOnline the bacteria they used has ben selected because it can be ‘desiccated’ or effectively frozen – and then reactive when they reach the Red Planet.
BIOROCK ON THE ISS: THE FIRST MINING EXPERIMENT IN SPACE
Matchbox-sized mining devices – called biomining reactors – were developed by scientists at the UK Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
Eighteen of the devices were transported to the ISS aboard a SpaceX rocket launched from Cape Canaveral 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.
These minerals could be used to produce soils, water, fuel or rare elements for technology.
Bacteria could be used to break rocks down into soil for growing crops, or to provide minerals for life support systems that produce air and water.
Matchbox-sized ‘biomining reactors’ were developed by researchers at Edinburgh’s UK Centre for Astrobiology 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 in July last year.
Small pieces of basalt – a common rock on the moon and Mars – were loaded into each device and submerged in a microbial bacterial cocktail.
The three-week trial was conducted under space gravity conditions to simulate environments on Mars and the moon.
It showed bacteria would boost the removal of rare earth elements from basalt in lunar and Martian landscapes fivefold.
The study, funded by the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency, also sheds fresh light on how gravity influences the growth of microbial communities.
Professor Cockell told MailOnline that the experiment helped reveal how gravity is involved in influencing the way microbes grow over rocks – which could help future ‘mining’ efforts on Earth.
‘This fundamental knowledge can not only help us with biomining, but it gives us fundamental insights into how factors such as gravity influence microbial growth on Earth,’ he explained to MailOnline.
‘Biofilms foul pipes and medical equipment on Earth and we want to know how that growth is influenced by factors such as gravity.’
Co author Dr Rosa Santomartino, a member of the lab at Edinburgh’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said microorganisms are ‘very versatile’.
‘As we move into space, they can be used to accomplish a diversity of processes. Elemental mining is potentially one of them,’ said Santomartino.
Rare Earth elements (REEs) are critical components of electronics because of their unique magnetic or catalytic properties but they are expensive to mine.
As we all become more dependent on technology, demand will soon surpass supply and as humans start to explore other worlds, finding safe and efficient ways to extract them will become critical, researchers say.
A biomining reactor containing small slices of basalt rock. The team soaked basalt samples – a rock typically found on the Moon and Mars – in a bacterial solution over three weeks and found it could extract rare minerals
Cockell and colleagues used three species of bacteria called Sphingomonas desiccabilis, Bacillus subtilis and Cupriavidus metallidurans.
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.’
Cockell told MailOnline this was purely a ‘proof of concept’ and could prove to be very expensive to scale up for sustainable levels of use, but experiments are required to demonstrate whether that is the case.
‘It is definitely the case that we’d want to think about whether this would work economically compared to other types of mining.
‘Biomining is just one approach to mining. So there is plenty of work to be done to get to the point of actually applying this,’ he said.
The findings have been published in the journal Nature Communications.
NASA plans to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s after first landing on the Moon
Mars has become the next giant leap for mankind’s exploration of space.
But before humans get to the red planet, astronauts will take a series of small steps by returning to the moon for a year-long mission.
Details of a the mission in lunar orbit have been unveiled as part of a timeline of events leading to missions to Mars in the 2030s.
Nasa has outlined its four stage plan (pictured) which it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars at he Humans to Mars Summit held in Washington DC yesterday. This will entail multiple missions to the moon over coming decades
In May 2017, Greg Williams, deputy associate administrator for policy and plans at Nasa, outlined the space agency’s four stage plan that it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars, as well as its expected time-frame.
Phase one and two will involve multiple trips to lunar space, to allow for construction of a habitat which will provide a staging area for the journey.
The last piece of delivered hardware would be the actual Deep Space Transport vehicle that would later be used to carry a crew to Mars.
And a year-long simulation of life on Mars will be conducted in 2027.
Phase three and and four will begin after 2030 and will involve sustained crew expeditions to the Martian system and surface of Mars.