If the next few decades go well, humans could find themselves living and working away from Earth on the moon or Mars. We’ll need lots of raw materials to sustain human endeavors on other planets, and a new project on the International Space Station (ISS) demonstrates how we can make space mining over 400 percent more efficient. All you need is a bacterial care package from home.
Everything we send into orbit comes with a cost, and the numbers are not small. The cheapest option currently available, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, clocks in at $1,500 per kilogram of payload. And this is a discounted bulk rate. If you’re looking to send something smaller into space, the Falcon 9 costs about $2,700 per kilogram. Naturally, this makes collecting resources in space an appealing option, a process called in-situ resource utilization.
On Earth, bacteria are responsible for freeing up minerals like iron and magnesium trapped in rocks, making them easier to extract. Some mining operations have also turned to bacteria as a way to reduce the usage of toxic chemicals, a process called biomining. The lack of such bacteria in space could make an already risky mining operation even more difficult, but a team from the University of Edinburgh spent the last ten years developing a technology that shows how we might harness bacteria to do the same job on the moon or Mars.
The team created small matchbook-sized devices called biomining reactors, and 18 of them were sent up to the ISS in July 2019 for testing in low-gravity environments. The goal was to determine if bacteria will have the same rock weathering effects on the moon or Mars. The reactors contained a solution rich in one of several bacterial species, or with no bacteria at all as a control. Along with the bacteria, each reactor had a piece of volcanic basalt, a type of rock that is common on the moon and contains minerals that can be freed up by bacteria.
According to the study in Nature Communications, the ISS crew did not note any significant difference in the rock-weathering function of bacteria with simulated Mars gravity, simulated Earth gravity, or the microgravity of the station. While two of the three bacteria didn’t have much effect on weathering, testing on a bacteria called Sphingomonas desiccabilis showed a massive boost. These organisms were able to increase mineral availability in the reactor between 111.9 and 429.2 percent compared with the controls.
The researchers also noted that bacterial concentrations reached the same levels in all tested gravity conditions, probably because they had plenty of nutrients. That means biomining in space is feasible, provided you can keep your bacterial helpers well-fed. It’s not currently economically viable to send mined materials back to Earth, but biomining could help sustain a long-term human presence in space.
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