British scientists have designed an experiment to test how bacteria could be used to mine space rocks on asteroids, the Moon and Mars.
Astronauts will help to test the devices aboard the International Space Station, following their successful installation on 30 July.
Mining in space could enable astronauts to stay in space for long periods by supplying them with minerals, metals, oxygen and water for life support and fuel. Instead of bringing materials from Earth, which would be both expensive and environmentally costly, they could use what already exists in space.
However the devices must first be tested to identify how three different types of bacteria grow and form layers called biofilms in conditions of weightlessness and simulated martian gravity.
Scientists based at the University of Edinburgh are leading the investigation where 18 computer-mouse-sized automated culture chambers will test how low gravity may affect the ability of bacteria to extract materials such as iron, calcium and magnesium from space rocks.
Low-gravity simulations can be achieved on board the International Space Station using a centrifuge set to specific speeds.
The devices will be tested using three strains of bacteria: B. subtilis supplied by the DLR German Space Administration; C. metallidurans from the SCK-CEN nuclear research centre in Belgium; and S. desiccabilis from the University of Edinburgh. The bacterial strains will be exposed to basalt rock from volcanoes on Earth. Both lunar and Martian basalt is made from the same minerals as terrestrial basalt.
The samples will then be returned to Earth for analysis.
Charles Cockell of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, who is leading the project, said: “This experiment will give us new fundamental insights into the behaviour of microbes in space, their applications in space exploration and how they might be used more effectively on Earth in all the myriad way that microbes affect our lives.”
The findings could have applications on Earth, including the recovery of metals from ores and the use of biofilms in industry and medicine.
Rosa Santomartino of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, who will lead the study of the rocks when they return, 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.”
The experiment is led by the University of Edinburgh, with ESA and the UK Space Agency, and is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.