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UK space experiment could mine resources on moon and Mars

A British-led experiment which could enable mining on the moon and Mars will be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) on Saturday.

Acquiring local resources in space rather than bringing everything needed from Earth could enable long-term human settlements off the planet.

The new BioAsteroid experiment, which will take off on a SpaceX rocket at 4.39pm, will take matchbox-sized containers to the ISS to investigate how the process of biomining works in microgravity.

The self-contained laboratory will be used on board the ISS. Pic: ESA
Image: The self-contained laboratory will be used on board the ISS. Pic: ESA

The containers will be used to grow bacteria and fungi in an incubator for three weeks to see how the gravitational environment impacts the microbes extracting materials from the rocks.

Microbes are used for biomining Earth as a friendly way of accessing metals trapped within rocks that the microbes digest, leaving behind the materials needed by the miners.

If the technique proves successful in space then it could support efforts to explore the moon and Mars, enabling humanity to extract building materials, water, and even rocket fuel.

According to the University of Edinburgh: “Bacteria could be the key to turning the surfaces of desolate worlds such as the moon or Mars into fertile farmland where visitors or colonists could grow their own food.

More from Esa

“That would, again, majorly cut down on the amount of food needed for long-term missions, while also providing much-needed variety and nutrition that are difficult to provide in space rations today.”

The ISS offers conditions similar to those environments that can’t be replicated on Earth, the researchers said.

The aurora from the International Space Station. Pic: NASA
Image: The experiment will take place on board the ISS. Pic: NASA

Libby Jackson, human exploration programme manager at the UK Space Agency, said: “If we want to keep exploring space and pushing the boundaries of what is possible, then we will need to make or find the essential elements required to support life.

“Through our membership of the European Space Agency, UK scientists are able to take advantage of the unique scientific facilities available on the ISS and are at the forefront of efforts to recreate the foundations of life on Earth.

“The new Bioreactor Express programme, which this experiment forms part of, is going to change the way we are able use this unique laboratory, opening up new opportunities for UK scientists and organisations to undertake science in space.”

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh and Kayser Space, based at the Harwell space cluster in Oxfordshire collaborated on the project.

Professor Charles Cockell, University of Edinburgh, said: “To sustain humans permanently beyond Earth we need to get access to useful materials. This experiment advances our ability to do that.

“It will also yield new fundamental insights into processes that are useful here on Earth, such as biomining and how microbes form biofilms that foul our pipes and industrial plants.”

 

By David Aaron

December 05, 2020

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