If we are going to colonize space, we need to learn to mine it. Mining is how we get all the necessary materials to build stuff. Earth’s resources are not going to last forever either. That is why astronauts are about to test the world’s first space mining devices – prototypes will be sent to the International Space Station very soon.

These devices are scientific equipment – they are not actually designed to extract materials from extraterrestrial bodies yet. However, they may help testing the basic principles that can be applied to space mining. The methods used are not even remotely similar to those that we use on Earth. Here we dig or drill into the ground, gather up crushed rock and use chemical and mechanical processes to separate metals. Outside of our cosy Earth we may have to ask microscopic organisms for help.

We certainly don’t lack bacteria on Earth and different species have different properties. For example, some bacteria have a natural ability to extract useful materials, such as iron, calcium and magnesium. These bacteria work very efficiently on Earth, but will they be able to break down rocks into useful materials in zero gravity? That is what is going to be tested now.

Scientists from the UK Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh have developed the matchbox-sized prototypes, called biomining reactors. 16 of such devices, which were designed and perfected over the last decade, will be sent to the International Space Station within the next couple of months on a SpaceX rocket. Once there, they will be fed with small pieces of basalt rock and will be submerged in bacterial solution. Basalt was chosen, because it makes up the surface of the Moon and Mars.

Tests have been carried out on Earth, but it is very important to continue them in low gravity environment. Such devices will have to work well on the Moon and Mars and scientists are not sure if the absence of Earth levels of gravity will affect the ability of bacteria to mine minerals from rocks. Researchers will also study how microbes grow biofilms – this will improve our understanding about how how microbes grow on Earth and in space. The rocks will be sent back to Earth for examination after a three week period of experiments. Dr Rosa Santomartino, one of the scientists in this project, said: “Microbes are everywhere, and this experiment is giving us new ideas about how they grow on surfaces and how we might use them to explore space”.

Interestingly, this is not purely just about space. Microbes could be used to recover small amounts of metals from mining waste. This could improve yield of valuable resources and help meeting the ever growing demand.

Source: University of Edinburgh