The idea of mining asteroids and the moon continues to intrigue both the scientific and commercial sectors. NASA scientists suggest that advances in robotics and 3-D printing may lead to the development of self-sustaining machinery and tools that could make asteroid mining a reality. Companies interested in asteroid mining also point out that asteroids contain water which may be used to make rocket fuel in space and thus enable further exploration. Companies such as SpaceX and Planetary Resources have made significant progress in their commercial space exploration projects.
Recently, phys.org reported on another space mining project, this time concerning Mars and in-situ resource utilization, also known as biomining. According to the article, a new study, BioRock, is being conducted on the International Space Station is trying to determine how microbes grow on and alter planetary rocks in microgravity and simulated Martian gravity. The study also is the first test of extraterrestrial biomining and the first use of a prototype miniature mining reactor in space.
“For the investigation, we are using basalt rock that is naturally very vesicular, or contains lots of spaces, to see how the bacteria interact within these cavities in microgravity,” said Rosa Santomartino, a postdoctoral scientist at the Cockell lab investigating the growth of the microbes. Back on Earth, investigators plan to examine how the microbes grew across and into the rock and to compare the three types of microbes.
“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.”
“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,” said Cockell. Microbe-rock interactions can turn rockinto soils and explorers might one day use them to transform regolith—the layer of dusty, fragmented debris covering the surface of the Moon, Mars, and asteroids—into soils for growing plants.
It may still be a long time before space mining projects come to fruition. In the meantime, some miners are exploring ways to stretch their mineral sources through new reprocessing technologies to extract valuable metals from waste (read From Tailings to Treasure? A New Mother Lode). Other more immediate issues facing the industry include environmental concerns (read Mining and the Environment: What Happens When a Mine Closes?); the growing demand for automated mining equipment, and the need for sophisticated communication and information technologies to run mine operations (Read LIMS Locates Diamonds in the Rough).