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Mining rocks in orbit could aid space missions

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.

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

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.

Rare elements
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 high technology industries 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 is published in the journal Nature Communications. The paper is available here:

The experiment 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.”

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