Mining rocks in orbit could aid space missions

A study from Edinburgh University suggests that mining experiments conducted in space could lead to new technologies, helping to aid space missions.

Tests were carried out on the International Space Station, the findings of which suggest that bacteria can extract useful materials from rocks on Mars and the Moon. Researchers said this could aid efforts to develop ways of sourcing metals and materials essential for survival in space, such as iron and magnesium.

Space mining
Bacteria could enhance the removal of rare earth elements from Martian landscapes ‘by up to 400 per cent’ (Image by Aynur Zakirov, Pixabay)

It is hoped that the bacteria could be used in future to break down rocks into soil for growing crops, or to provide minerals for life support systems that produce air and water.

Scientists at the University’s UK Centre for Astrobiology worked with engineering company Kayser Italia to develop matchbox-sized mining devices (biomining reactors) over a ten year period. They then transported 18 of the devices to the space station – which orbits the Earth at an altitude of 250 miles – aboard a SpaceX rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in July 2019.

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According to the team, small pieces of basalt (a common rock on the Moon and Mars) were loaded into each device and submerged in bacterial solution for the three-week experiment, which was conducted under space gravity conditions to simulate the environments of Mars and the Moon.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that 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 high technology industries such as in mobile phones, computers and magnets. Microbes are also routinely used on Earth in the process of biomining to extract economically useful elements from rocks, such as copper and gold.

Professor Charles Cockell, School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “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.”

The experiment received funding from the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency. Research was supported by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council, part of UK Research and Innovation. 

Libby Jackson, human exploration programme manager at the UK Space Agency, commented: “Experiments like this 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.”