international space station iss

‘Bio-mining’ experiment on the ISS paves way for off-world habitation

Image credit: DT

The tools needed to conduct a 'bio-mining' experiment have blasted off to the International Space Station (ISS) with hopes the technique could one day help astronauts establish a permanent presence on another planet.

Matchbox-sized containers containing asteroid rock will be used to grow bacteria and fungi in the low-gravity environment.

It is hoped that the process could one day be used by the first space settlers to gather the materials and minerals they need to build long-term bases off-planet.

The experiment is funded through the Bioreactor Express programme, backed in part by the UK Space Agency which contributes £374m per year to the European Space Agency (ESA) that runs it.

It is looking to understand how low-gravity conditions affect the microbes and rock, in the hope they can eventually be used to extract materials.

On Earth, microbes are already used in some mining scenarios as a friendly way to access metals; they digest the rock and what is left behind are the metals that miners need.

If successful, the method would support efforts to explore the Moon and Mars, allowing humans to extract building materials, water or rocket fuel.

Libby Jackson, human exploration programme manager at the UK Space Agency, said: “If we want to keep exploring space and pushing the boundaries of what is possible, then we will need to make or find the essential elements required to support life.

“Through our membership of the European Space Agency, UK scientists are able to take advantage of the unique scientific facilities available on the ISS and are at the forefront of efforts to recreate the foundations of life on Earth.

“The new Bioreactor Express programme, which this experiment forms part of, is going to change the way we are able use this unique laboratory, opening up new opportunities for UK scientists and organisations to undertake science in space.”

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh and Kayser Space, based at the Harwell space cluster in Oxfordshire, collaborated on the project.

Professor Charles Cockell, University of Edinburgh, said: “To sustain humans permanently beyond Earth we need to get access to useful materials.

“This experiment advances our ability to do that.

“It will also yield new fundamental insights into processes that are useful here on Earth, such as biomining and how microbes form biofilms that foul our pipes and industrial plants.”

The experiment launched to the ISS on SpX-21, a commercial resupply service mission contracted by Nasa and flown by SpaceX using a Cargo Dragon 2.

This weekend marked the first time SpaceX has had two capsules in orbit at the same time.

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