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Microbes may be our miners on asteroids, moons and other planets – CBC.ca

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Microbes could be put to use in future human space settlements extracting metals and rare elements from rocks, according to a researcher who designed the world’s first mining experiment in space. 

“You can think of microbes as miniature miners, if you like, going into rocks and getting all that good stuff that we need to build a civilization,” said Professor Charles Cockell, an astrobiologist from the University of Edinburgh.

If humans are ever going to settle in space or on other planets, they’ll likely need to find ways to efficiently find and harvest resources in alien environments. Mining will be a key technology in that effort.

Cockell told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald that microbes are currently used on Earth to extract materials of value from rock

“If those rocks happen to contain gold or copper, then we can use the microbes to break down those materials,” he said.

That straightforward result was very exciting because that was the first demonstration of mining beyond the earth.– Prof. Charles Cockell, University of Edinburgh

Human miners crush the rocks and add liquid — usually water — to activate microbes dormant in the ore.

The microbes then use chemical processes to break down rocks — essentially digesting them — to access nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen. Valuable metals and minerals can be a bacterial waste product.

“The leachate, which is the liquid that comes out of the rocks, contains the elements that you want to get hold of,” added Cockell. Those elements can then be easily extracted from the leachate for use.

On Earth, mining companies use bacteria to extract about 20 per cent of the world’s copper and five per cent of our planet’s gold.

Potential complicating factors in low gravity

Cockell wanted to see whether microbes would do the same job in space. In 2019 he was able to send an experiment to the International Space Station to test this. He just published the results of his study in the journal Nature Communications

The issue he was particularly concerned with was whether the micro-gravity environment of the space station would cause the microbial cells to behave any differently in processing minerals in space than they do on Earth. 

Artist’s impression of habitats on Mars. Colonies on Mars could be supported by bacterial mining facilities. (AI SpaceFactory)

His concern in particular was whether the lack of gravity would mean the bacterial cells couldn’t move to the right places in the rock and water slurry, or if it would disrupt the normal circulation processes that on Earth cause mixing of fluids around the rock particles, which allows the microbes to access them. Whether the rock-eating microbes would thrive and reproduce in space was also an issue.

“Many people have shown that gravity does affect microbial growth in space,” said Cockell. “So we were simply testing whether Martian gravity and micro-gravity, for example, and asteroids would change the way in which bio-mining occurred.”

Mining experiment aboard the ISS

In their space station experiment they tested three different bacterial species in different gravity conditions to mimic gravity on an asteroid or on Mars. 

“We spent several years designing a miniature biomining reactor. And this is essentially a small piece of kit in which you put your pieces of rock, in our case, basalt and your dried microbes,” described Cockell.

The basalt rock they used in the experiment is similar to what’s found on the moon or Mars.

Italian astronaut, Luca Parmitano, put the biomining reactor into a miniature centrifuge that spun the samples around to simulate different gravity conditions.

The microbes were then left to grow and feed for 21 days. Samples were then flown back to Earth for analysis.

Image of Sphingomonas desiccabilis, the bacterium that was shown to biologically mine rare earth elements, growing on basalt rock. (Rosa Santomartino)

One of the bacterial species they tested is called Sphingomonas desiccabilis, and naturally lives in salt and rock crusts in deserts. Cockell said it “did successfully extract rare earth elements out of the rock.”

“That straightforward result was very exciting because that was the first demonstration of mining beyond the earth.”

He said what was even more interesting though, was how the microbes managed to overcome the problem of different gravity conditions — perhaps by changing their rate of growth — to eventually reach the same concentration of bacterial cells in the reduced gravity conditions as in the Earth’s gravity.

“What our experiment suggests is that you can do biomining on asteroids or Mars, just as you can do on the Earth,” he said. “These different gravity effects should not change our ability to do biomining.”

A step toward self-sustainability in space

Cockell said he envisions settlements on the moon or Mars, or bases on an asteroid, and nearby, there could be a giant processing facility where microbes could be used to help break down rocks to extract desirable elements.

One concern with this technology, however, would be potential bacterial contamination of places like Mars where scientists are searching for signs of Indigenous life. 

“There’s clearly a trade off there. And there’s clearly a discussion to be had about whether you want to use biomining or other types of mining,” said Cockell who added there is a lot more research to do before we reach that point.

He has another experiment called “BioAsteroid,” which is scheduled to fly in a few weeks time. in which astronauts will conduct the same biomining experiment, but using a crushed up meteorite instead of Mars-like rock.

Produced and written by Sonya Buyting

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Japan awaits capsule's return with asteroid soil samples – North Shore News

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TOKYO — Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully released a small capsule on Saturday and sent it toward Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet, the country’s space agency said.

The capsule successfully detached from 220,000 kilometres (136,700 miles) away in a challenging operation that required precision control, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said. The capsule — just 40 centimetres (15 inches) in diameter — is now descending and is expected to land Sunday in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia.

“The capsule has been separated. Congratulations,” JAXA project manager Yuichi Tsuda said.

Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometres (180 million miles) away, a year ago. After it released the capsule, it moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending toward the planet as it set off on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.

About two hours later, JAXA said it had successfully rerouted Hayabusa2 for its new mission, as beaming staff exchanged fist and elbow touches at the agency’s command centre in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.

“We’ve successfully come this far, and when we fulfil our final mission to recover the capsule, it will be perfect,” mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa said from the command centre during a livestreaming event.

People who gathered to watch the capsule’s separation at public viewing events across Japan cheered the success. ”I’m really glad that the capsule has been successfully released. My heart was beating fast when I was watching,” said Ichiro Ryoko, a 60-year-old computer engineer who watched at Tokyo Dome.

Hayabusa2’s return with the world’s first asteroid subsurface samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made a successful touch-and-go grab of surface samples from asteroid Bennu. China, meanwhile, announced this week that its lunar lander collected underground samples and sealed them within the spacecraft for their return to Earth, as space developing nations compete in their missions.

In the early hours of Sunday, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, will briefly turn into a fireball as it reenters the atmosphere 120 kilometres (75 miles) above Earth. At about 10 kilometres (6 miles) aboveground, a parachute will open to slow its fall and beacon signals will be transmitted to indicate its location.

JAXA staff have set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area to receive the signals. They also will use a marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule.

Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera for the arrival of the capsule, said he expected the Ryugu samples to be similar to the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in Victoria state more than 50 years ago.

“The Murchison meteorite opened a window on the origin of organics on Earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids as well as abundant water,” Ireland said. “We will examine whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was forming, and whether these still remain intact on the asteroid.”

Scientists say they believe the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the samples.

JAXA hopes to find clues to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth. Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said 0.1 gram of the dust would be enough to carry out all planned researches.

For Hayabusa2, it’s not the end of the mission it started in 2014. It is now heading to a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years one way, for possible research including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.

So far, its mission has been fully successful. It touched down twice on Ryugu despite the asteroid’s extremely rocky surface, and successfully collected data and samples during the 1 1/2 years it spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.

In its first touchdown in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In a more challenging mission in July that year, it collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater that it created earlier by blasting the asteroid’s surface.

Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and therefore may help explain how Earth evolved.

Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace,” the name of a sea-bottom castle in a Japanese folk tale.

___

Associated Press writers Dennis Passa in Brisbane, Australia, and Chisato Tanaka in Tokyo contributed to this report.

___

Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press









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Japan awaits capsule's return with asteroid soil samples – Burnaby Now

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TOKYO — Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully released a small capsule on Saturday and sent it toward Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet, the country’s space agency said.

The capsule successfully detached from 220,000 kilometres (136,700 miles) away in a challenging operation that required precision control, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said. The capsule — just 40 centimetres (15 inches) in diameter — is now descending and is expected to land Sunday in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia.

Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometres (180 million miles) away, a year ago. After it released the capsule, it moved away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending toward the planet as it set off on a new expedition to another distant asteroid.

About two hours later, JAXA said it had successfully rerouted Hayabusa2 for its new mission, as beaming staff exchanged fist and elbow touches at the agency’s command centre in Sagamihara, near Tokyo.

“We’ve successfully come this far, and when we fulfil our final mission to recover the capsule, it will be perfect,” mission manager Makoto Yoshikawa said from the command centre during a livestreaming event.

Hayabusa2’s return with the world’s first asteroid subsurface samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made a successful touch-and-go grab of surface samples from asteroid Bennu. China, meanwhile, announced this week that its lunar lander collected underground samples and sealed them within the spacecraft for their return to Earth, as space developing nations compete in their missions.

Many Hayabusa2 fans gathered to watch the capsule’s separation at public viewing events across Japan, including one at the Tokyo Dome stadium.

In the early hours of Sunday, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, will briefly turn into a fireball as it reenters the atmosphere 120 kilometres (75 miles) above Earth. At about 10 kilometres (6 miles) aboveground, a parachute will open to slow its fall and beacon signals will be transmitted to indicate its location.

JAXA staff have set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area to receive the signals. They also will use a marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule.

Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera for the arrival of the capsule, said he expected the Ryugu samples to be similar to the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in Victoria state more than 50 years ago.

“The Murchison meteorite opened a window on the origin of organics on Earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids as well as abundant water,” Ireland said. “We will examine whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was forming, and whether these still remain intact on the asteroid.”

Scientists say they believe the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the samples.

JAXA hopes to find clues to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth. Yoshikawa, the mission manager, said 0.1 gram of the dust would be enough to carry out all planned researches.

For Hayabusa2, it’s not the end of the mission it started in 2014. It is now heading to a small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years one way, for possible research including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.

So far, its mission has been fully successful. It touched down twice on Ryugu despite the asteroid’s extremely rocky surface, and successfully collected data and samples during the 1 1/2 years it spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.

In its first touchdown in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In a more challenging mission in July that year, it collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater that it created earlier by blasting the asteroid’s surface.

Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and therefore may help explain how Earth evolved.

Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace,” the name of a sea-bottom castle in a Japanese folk tale.

___

Associated Press writer Dennis Passa in Brisbane, Australia, contributed to this report.

___

Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

Mari Yamaguchi, The Associated Press









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Japan awaits spacecraft return with asteroid soil samples – Toronto Star

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TOKYO – Japan’s space agency said the Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully separated a capsule and sent it toward Earth to deliver samples from a distant asteroid that could provide clues to the origin of the solar system and life on our planet.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency said the capsule successfully detached Saturday afternoon from 220,000 kilometres (136,700 miles) away in a challenging operation that required precision control. The capsule is now descending to land in a remote, sparsely populated area of Woomera, Australia, on Sunday.

Hayabusa2 left the asteroid Ryugu, about 300 million kilometres (180 million miles) away, a year ago. After the capsule release, it is now moving away from Earth to capture images of the capsule descending to the planet.

Yuichi Tsuda, project manager at the space agency JAXA, stood up and raised his fists as everyone applauded the moment command centre officials confirmed the successful separation of the capsule.

Hayabusa2’s return with the world’s first asteroid subsurface samples comes weeks after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft made a successful touch-and-go grab of surface samples from asteroid Bennu. China, meanwhile, announced this week its lunar lander collected underground samples and sealed them within the spacecraft for return to Earth, as space developing nations compete in their missions.

Many Hayabusa2 fans gathered to observe the moment of the capsule separation at public viewing events across the country, including one at the Tokyo Dome stadium.

In the early hours of Sunday, the capsule, protected by a heat shield, will briefly turn into a fireball as it reenters the atmosphere 120 kilometres (75 miles) above Earth. At about 10 kilometres (6 miles) above ground, a parachute will open to slow its fall and beacon signals will be transmitted to indicate its location.

JAXA staff have set up satellite dishes at several locations in the target area to receive the signals, while also preparing a marine radar, drones and helicopters to assist in the search and retrieval of the pan-shaped capsule, 40 centimetres (15 inches) in diameter.

Australian National University space rock expert Trevor Ireland, who is in Woomera for the arrival of the capsule, said he expected the Ryugu samples to be similar to the meteorite that fell in Australia near Murchison in Victoria state more than 50 years ago.

“The Murchison meteorite opened a window on the origin of organics on Earth because these rocks were found to contain simple amino acids as well as abundant water,” Ireland said, “We will examine whether Ryugu is a potential source of organic matter and water on Earth when the solar system was forming, and whether these still remain intact on the asteroid.”

Scientists say they believe the samples, especially ones taken from under the asteroid’s surface, contain valuable data unaffected by space radiation and other environmental factors. They are particularly interested in analyzing organic materials in the samples.

JAXA hopes to find clues to how the materials are distributed in the solar system and are related to life on Earth.

For Hayabusa2, it’s not the end of the mission it started in 2014. After dropping the capsule, it will return to space and head to another distant small asteroid called 1998KY26 on a journey slated to take 10 years one way, for a possible research including finding ways to prevent meteorites from hitting Earth.

So far, its mission has been fully successful. It touched down twice on Ryugu despite its extremely rocky surface, and successfully collected data and samples during the 1 1/2 years it spent near Ryugu after arriving there in June 2018.

In its first touchdown in February 2019, it collected surface dust samples. In a more challenging mission in July that year, it collected underground samples from the asteroid for the first time in space history after landing in a crater that it created earlier by blasting the asteroid’s surface.

Asteroids, which orbit the sun but are much smaller than planets, are among the oldest objects in the solar system and therefore may help explain how Earth evolved.

Ryugu in Japanese means “Dragon Palace,” the name of a sea-bottom castle in a Japanese folk tale.

___

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Associated Press writer Dennis Passa in Brisbane, Australia, contributed to this report.

___

Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

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