- Although space mining sounds pretty sci-fi, it will be a reality in the future.
- Researchers are investigating the performance of the particular bacterium to extract metals from asteroids.
- The bacterium named Shewanella oneidensis has been known to survive in extreme space conditions.
Biomining is the process of extracting metals of economic interest from rock ores using microorganisms (microbes). The microscopic organisms facilitate the extraction of metals from sulfide/iron-containing ores.
At present, biomining is a small part of the overall mining industry. It is used to extract remaining materials from the waste rock after traditional mining, or used most frequently when the fraction of desired materials in a rock is small.
Nearly 5% of our gold and 15% of copper has already been extracted here on Earth using biomining process. Current operations are also targeting other valuable metals such as nickel and uranium, which are commonly found in sulfur-bearing minerals.
Now, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder are exploring the possibilities of mining precious materials from asteroids in space using biomining process. Although it sounds like a science fiction movie, space mining will be a reality in the future.
More Than Just A Financial Boom
Biomining is quite inexpensive compared to traditional mining processes. It involves pouring bacteria [and water] on specific types of rocks to extract the desired product out of it.
Many asteroids in our solar system contain excessive amounts of materials that are used in electronics, jewelry and other products but are extremely difficult to find on Earth. These asteroids are full of about 44 endangered elements that may face supply limitations on our planet in the future.
The research team plans to investigate the performance of the Shewanella oneidensis (a bacterium that can reduce metal ions and live in surrounding with or without oxygen) for extracting iron from Martian, lunar and asteroid regolith simulant under artificial reduced-gravity environments.
Source: University of Colorado Boulder
In fact, NASA is also planning to launch a Psyche spacecraft in 2022 to study one such asteroid, 16 Psyche. It’s a large metal asteroid (about 1/16 the diameter of Earth’s Moon) located nearly 3 AU (astronomical units) from Earth in the main asteroid belt.
The spacecraft will orbit the Psyche asteroid while analyzing its properties using a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, a multispectral imager, a magnetometer, and a radio instrument. This will be the first mission to study a world full of metal instead of ice and rock.
Artistic impression of the asteroid 16 Psyche | Credit: Maxar/NASA/JPL-Caltech
It is estimated that the 16 Psyche consists of $700 quintillion worth of iron, nickel and other valuable metals. This is way more than the total amount of money in the world, including physical and virtual assets.
Apart from the financial boon, space mining using bacteria could provide the source of metals for building next-generation deep space probes and space stations. If successful, space agencies would be able to develop structures entirely in space, which would reduce the need for heavy rocket launches from Earth.
Researchers also believe that all heavy industry and mining could be carried out entirely in space and our planet could be reserved exclusively for living.