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First-ever mining kits for space rocks being tested by astronauts

19 July 2019 - Astronauts will soon be testing the first-ever space mining devices, a ground-breaking new technique that could help us understand more than ever before about minerals and metals in space.

Prototype kits are being sent to the International Space Station for testing this summer, and the study – which is funded by STFC – could aid efforts to establish human settlements on distant worlds by helping develop ways to source minerals essential for survival in space.

This device uses microscopic organisms to recover samples from space rocks, such as iron, calcium and magnesium. Tests will be conducted in low gravity to find out how conditions on asteroids and planets such as Mars might affect the ability of these bacteria to mine minerals from rocks found there.

The rocks will be sent back to Earth to be analysed after the three-week experiment.

Project lead Professor Charles Cockell, of the University of Edinburgh, 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.”

This process, known as biomining, also has numerous applications on Earth, including in the recovery of metals from ores.

Astrobiologists from the UK Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh developed the matchbox-sized prototypes – called biomining reactors – over a 10-year period. The STFC-funded project is led by the University of Edinburgh, with the European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency.

More information is available on the University of Edinburgh website.

Last updated: 22 July 2019

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