ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano taking pictures of the BioRock experiment on the International Space Station.
The BioRock experiment was the first investigation into using organisms to mine for resources in space.
For three weeks, three different species of bacteria will unleash themselves on basalt slides in the Kubik centrifuge that simulates Earth and martian gravity as well as in microgravity.
Run by a research team from the University of Edinburgh in the UK, the BioRock experiment is testing how altered states of gravity affect biofilm formation – or the growth of microbes on rocks.
Microbes are able to weather down a rock from which they can extract ions. This natural process enables biomining, where useful metals are extracted from rock ores.
Already a common practice on Earth, biomining will eventually take place on the Moon, Mars and asteroids as we expand our understanding and exploration of the Solar System.
The bacteria arrived at the Space Station on the latest Dragon resupply mission in a dehydrated, dormant state.
The organisms are given ‘food’ to restore cell growth and left to grow on basalt at 20°C.
After three weeks, the samples will be preserved and stored at 4°C while they await their return to Earth.
Researchers will map out how altered states of gravity affect the rock and microbes as a whole, as well as which microbe is the best candidate for mining in space. It is hoped these results will shine light on extraterrestial biomining technologies and life-support systems involving microbes for longer duration spaceflight.
Biomining in space can also increase the efficiency of the process on Earth and could even reduce our reliance on precious Earth resources.
Luca was launched to the International Space Station for his second mission, Beyond, on 20 July 2019. He will spend six months living and working on the orbital outpost where he will support more than 50 European experiments and more than 200 international experiments in space.