On July 25, SpaceX launched its eighteenth Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-18) to the International Space Station.
Credit: SpaceX



Matchbox-sized prototypes – called biomining reactors – have been sent to the International Space Station (ISS).

The “space mining kits” are dedicated to studying how microscopic organisms could be used to recover minerals and metals from space rocks – from asteroids and other celestial targets.

Space testing is expected to reveal how low gravity affects bacteria’s natural ability to extract useful materials – such as iron, calcium and magnesium – from rocks, researchers at the University of Edinburgh say.

Their findings could also help improve the process – known as biomining – which has numerous applications on Earth, including in the recovery of metals from ores.

Rosa Santomartino
School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh checks out space mining kits pre-launch.
Credit: Rosa Santomartino

Three-week experiment

On July 27, eighteen of the devices reached the International Space Station, along with a host of other experiments, via a SpaceX Dragon supply ship. 

Onboard the ISS, small pieces of basalt rock – which makes up the surface of the Moon and Mars – will be loaded into each device and submerged in bacterial solution.

Biomining reactors.
Credits: Rosa Santomartino, UK Centre for Astrobiology/University of Edinburgh

According to a University of Edinburgh press statement, the three-week experiment will also study how microbes grow and form layers – known as biofilms – on natural surfaces in space. As well as providing insights into how low gravity affects biofilms, the findings will also improve understanding of how microbes grow on Earth.

Once returned to Earth, the rocks will be analyzed by the Edinburgh team in a lab at Stanford University in California.

Fundamental insights

The groundbreaking study could aid efforts to establish human settlements on distant worlds by helping develop ways to source minerals essential for survival in space.

“This experiment will give us new fundamental insights into the behavior 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,” explains Charles Cockell of the School of Physics and Astronomy and project lead at the University of Edinburgh.

Matchbox-sized prototypes – called biomining reactors.
Credits: Rosa Santomartino, UK Centre for Astrobiology/University of Edinburgh

“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,” added Rosa Santomartino, also of the School of Physics and Astronomy. She is leading the study of the rocks when they return.

The “BioRock” experiment is led by the University of Edinburgh, with the European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency, in collaboration with DLR (Germany) and SCK-CEN (Belgium), and is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

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