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Scientists Are Recruiting Bacteria to Mine Rock — in Space

A microbe called Sphingomonas desiccabilis growing on basalt rock.
A microbe called Sphingomonas desiccabilis growing on basalt rock.
(Image: © UK Centre for Astrobiology/University of Edinburgh)

A new space station experiment is testing whether would-be space miners can enlist some very small potential accomplices to do their grunt work.

The experiment, called BioRock, hitched a ride to the International Space Station on board the SpaceX Dragon capsule that arrived on July 27. It's designed to measure a common characteristic of microbes here on Earth — they can leech minerals out of rocks. With BioRock, scientists are measuring how well the bacteria can perform that feat without gravity. The project includes 18 different miniature reactors, each containing a sample of a type of rock called basalt and a strain of bacteria.

"We hope to gain insights into how microbes grow in space and how we might use them in human exploration and settlement of space, from mining to turning rocks into soils on the moon and Mars," principal investigator Charles Cockell, professor at the UK Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh, said in a NASA statement

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For this initial experiment, the team is testing three different types of bacteria, including one that was found in the arid crust of the Colorado Plateau and one that can tolerate exposure to heavy metals. Each microbe can set to work attaching to the rock sample and trying to draw minerals out of it so that scientists can understand how effective these bacteria can be without gravity.

"The BioRock experiment starts putting the pieces of the puzzle together," Cockell added. "Understanding how microbes interact, grow and extract elements from a rock surface in microgravity and simulated Mars gravity will tell us, for the first time, if low gravity affects the ability of microorganisms to attach to rock surfaces and perform biomining. In other words, whether extraterrestrial mining is possible."

BioRock reactors sent to the International Space Station.  (Image credit: Rosa Santomartino, UK Centre for Astrobiology/University of Edinburgh)

The scientists behind the experiment will measure how much iron, calcium, magnesium, and more than a dozen other elements the bacteria can pull out of the rock samples during their time in space. Later experiments could test other microbes and other materials to better understand the potential opportunities.

"Microbes are everywhere — in our food, our homes, and our industrial processes — and they do hugely important things in our everyday life," Cockell said. "As we move into space, we can harness microbes to make our lives easier and improve the success of space settlements. BioRock is about forming a new space-faring alliance with the microbial world — using microbes to advance a permanent human presence in space." 

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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