In 2020, Space-X’s Crew-1 dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station (or ISS), where they would conduct a series of experiments over the course of 180 days. One of the most interesting experiments (which was delivered to the ISS last December) is BioAsteroid, which seeks to test rock-eating microbes for potential biomining operations that would be carried out in the future on the Moon, Mars, and maybe even asteroids.
These experiments could lead the way to a new era of space exploration, one where biomining and the use of microbes will provide a host of different systems for astronauts. Here are 10 of the ways that microbes could revolutionize our exploration of the solar system…
10. Oxygen Production
Regolith (as pictured above) is a layer of loose rocky material that rests over a solid layer of rock, something that is extremely common on worlds that lack a significant atmosphere (like moons, asteroids, and planets like Mars and Mercury). Regolith comes in a variety of different shapes and sizes, including dust, broken rock, and glasslike material that carries a strong magnetic charge and sticks to pretty much everything. Lunar regolith was a massive nuisance during the Apollo era, getting inside the landers, modules, and wearing down space suits to near critical levels. Dealing with and managing regolith in a manner that is safe has always been a priority when NASA and other space organizations look at going back to the moon, but now it’s looking like we can use that regolith to help support our occupation of these harsh environments.
Experiment BioRock showed that biomining worked in reduced gravity. The regolith on the moon contains a ton of oxygen, and biomining could be key to providing plenty of air to the astronauts who end up helping to settle the moon.
The Apollo astronauts actually discovered that the regolith on the moon contains at least 40% oxygen.
On Mars, there is plentiful amounts of oxygen in its iron oxide and hydroxide rich soil, and the same process proposed for biomining regolith on the moon and asteroids could also be used on Mars.
9. Rare-Earth Metals
One of the most beneficial aspects of biomining with microbes is their ability to access rare-earth metals like yttrium, lanthanum, neodymium, and gadolinium. Using three bacteria, sphingomonas desiccabilis, Cupriavidus metallidurans, and bacillus subtilis, experiments have shown that there is no overall loss in yield in any of the gravitational environments two of the bacteria have been tested in. Bacillus subtilis however showed a reduction of yields, performing below the other microbes in experiments, but you can’t win them all.
This is huge because it means that biomining using these micro-organisms will give us access to these important rare-earth metals. These metals are used in the production of computer memory, storage devices, rechargeable batteries, cellphones, catalytic converters, magnets, fluorescent lighting, and tough metal alloys that could help us build habitats for the developing societies of the worlds we settle.
8. Radiation Protection
The Chernobyl disaster has taught us quite a bit about the havoc that radiation can wreak on the environment, leading to the damaging of an ecosystem that prevents dead animals and plant life from decaying. But it’s also teaching us how resilient certain forms of life are as well, leading to the discovery of Cryptococcus neoformans, a fungus that is capable of decomposing radioactive material like the hot graphite found in Chernobyl’s reactor.
After an experiment on the ISS, it’s now known that this fungus is fully capable of surviving in space. What’s incredible, though, is the unique composition and mechanism that allows Cryptococcus neoformans to safely convert radiation into energy. This is due to the extremely dark melanin pigment it produces. This melanin absorbs radiation and converts it to energy.
Currently, NASA and the ESA are thinking of ways that this could be used on spacecraft. Since the fungus can survive in space, one plan is to grow it on the outside of spacecraft where it will both act as a shield against deadly levels of radiation and potentially act as a type of generator for energy.
7. Identify Alien Microbes
By studying the way microbes behave in space, scientists are seeing the very limits of what life is capable of surviving. We’ve seen bacteria survive in space for a whole year or longer, and with the discovery of Earth’s deep biosphere (a subterranean network of microbial life as deep as eight kilometers beneath the surface) we’re beginning to suspect that the same kind of networks could be present on Mars, Titan, Venus, and even Europa.
Though there is some argument whether or not we humans should even land on Mars, knowing that there could be life brewing beneath the surface, some scientists suggest that we infect the surface with microbes before ever sending people to the red planet.
6. Waste Disposal
Where humans and other lifeforms go, microbes follow. If we’re ever able to send astronauts to Mars, they will produce a lot of waste. According to one NASA estimate, if a crew of six were on a two-year trip to the red planet, they would produce about six tons of waste… much of it fecal matter.
That is a lot of poop!
Astronaut waste gets shipped back to Earth for those who end up staying on the ISS for any period of time, but for longer missions, astronauts would want to recycle it. Human waste contains important resources that astronauts will need when attempting to bear the harsh conditions of an alien world. Microbes can not only help breakdown human waste, but they can also help produce electricity and make fertilizer (kind of like in The Martian, where astronaut Mark Watney is forced to use his own poop to farm potatoes on Mars).
In fact, bacteria in the Geobacteraceae are especially good at decomposing organic matter and would be perfect for waste disposal on Mars or any other settlement. And under the right conditions, Geobacteraceae are capable of moving electrons into metals, producing electricity.
5. Mitigate Diseases in Astronauts
This one is a no-brainer. We already use fungi and other microbes on Earth to create medicines for a variety of different ailments. Living in space comes with a plethora of health issues for humans, and indeed the human immune system (as well as the viruses that end up attacking it) behave very differently in microgravity environments than they do here on Earth.
Because the ISS is such a clean environment, astronauts are deprived of necessary microbes needed to maintain their biomes, which can lead to some serious health issues.
Careful control of microbes in the environment where astronauts live will be key to maintaining their health. So, it will be a requirement to keep microbes of every kind necessary to maintain the human biome aboard spaceships and in the habitats on worlds that humans intend to settle.
4. Soil Fertilization
Well, Experiment BioAsteroid sought to answer part of this question. Sphingomonas desiccabilis is a bacterium found in the Colorado Plateau and they’re capable of surviving in environments with low concentrations of nutrients.
Using microbes like this, scientists may be able to engineer a mix of microbes that are guaranteed to convert regolith into soil that plants will grow in. This could also help with revitalizing soil that has been depleted here on Earth.
3. Water Production
Biomining can also be used to produce water on the Moon and Mars. Most of Mars’ water is locked away in its soil, although other methods like hydrogen reduction plants and lunar rover prospectors are also promising in this area.
All that’s required to produce water is one-part hydrogen and two parts oxygen. It’s been discovered that on the Moon, at least, hydrogen both bombards and is stripped away by the solar wind, and lunar and Martian regolith contain high amounts of oxygen. Not only can biomining be used to unlock the water deep in Mars’ surface, but by combining techniques using microbes on the Moon, water can also be produced there as well.
2. Fuel Production
Biotechnological methods can also be used to produce fuel on asteroids, the moon, and yes, Mars as well. This includes both biomining and something we haven’t talked about yet, biogas production. Bacteria used on asteroids would be able to ferment carbon sources and methanogenic Archaea would produce methane for spacecraft propulsion and industrial applications.
This requires a healthy understanding of the limitations of how microbes behave in space (thankfully, we’re learning a ton about this right now through experiments like BioAsteroid).
Since we already know that biomining is capable of unearthing critical rare-earth metals used in the production of fuels and that it’s possible to release oxygen and hydrogen as well as other important minerals and elements from regolith, it’s no surprise that scientists are looking to use biomining to aid in the production of fuel for astronauts.
But with climate change being such a huge problem right now, microbes can also help humans produce biofuels that could effectively replace fossil fuels entirely and (hopefully) reverse the effects of climate change.
Some scientists believe that synthetic and designer microbes are just around the corner and that they will be instrumental in colonizing and terraforming places like Mars. Microbes are already known to be extremely resilient to the rigors of space and various gravitational fields.
Microbes can revitalize Martian regolith, effectively turning it into fertile soil, and it can also extract oxygen that’s trapped in the soil. It’s thought that microbes in the ocean billions of years ago led to the formation of life on Earth, and that is exactly what might happen if designer bacteria were introduced to a planet like Mars. Just as microbes can be engineered to produce breathable air as a byproduct, they could also be used to produce ozone to block harmful radiation.
Radiation eating fungi could also help to bring rad levels down into acceptable levels once this is done. Mars already has plenty of nutrients for our microbes to feed on, and more importantly, has liquid water, all we need to do is design the right kind of microbes to tap into those things to transform Mars from a hellscape into an oasis (along with an artificial magnetic field to keep the new atmosphere from being stripped away, as well).