A UK-led space biomining experiment, which has the potential to provide resources for future space missions, is due to launch on a SpaceX rocket today.
Experiments on the International Space Station have shown that the process of “biomining” will work in microgravity; a discovery that could help the first space settlers gather the minerals they need to build a long-term presence beyond Earth.
The BioAsteroid experiment will take up match-box sized containers carrying asteroid rock, that will then be used to grow bacteria and fungi in an incubator for three weeks to investigate how gravity affects interaction between the microbes and rock in reduced gravity. Scientists will investigate how the microbes extract materials from rocks in space.
On Earth, microbes are used in some mining as an environmentally friendly way to access metals. They digest the rock and what is left behind are the metals that miners need.
If successful, this method would support efforts to explore the Moon and Mars, allowing humans to extract building materials, water or rocket fuel. Experimenting on the International Space Station (ISS) allows scientists to conduct unique investigations on the effects of microbes on asteroidal material in conditions that can’t be replicated on Earth.
Libby Jackson, Human Exploration Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency, said:
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh and Kayser Space, based at the Harwell space cluster in Oxfordshire, have collaborated on the project – the first European experiment to be fast-tracked through the Bioreactor Express programme, which is dedicated to biological, biotechnological and biochemistry experiments.
Prof. Charles Cockell, University of Edinburgh, said:
David Zolesi, Kayser Space Managing Director, added:
The experiment is due to launch to the ISS on the SpX-21, a Commercial Resupply Service mission contracted by NASA and flown by SpaceX using a Cargo Dragon 2.
The UK Space Agency funds the Bioreactor Express programme through its £374 million per year contribution to the European Space Agency (ESA). This membership enables the UK to collaborate with space agencies across the world on projects like the International Space Station.
Early next year we will see the first significant UK industrial contribution to the ISS. The ColKa communications terminal, built by MDA UK, will be installed by astronauts on a spacewalk in January.
This terminal will significantly upgrade the communications abilities in the Columbus module, where many of the UK science experiments take place as it will enable experiment data to be ‘beamed’ down to Earth.