Launch of BioAsteroid experiment to space station

BioAsteroid culturing device
BioAsteroid culturing device

Scientists investigate the effects of microbes on asteroidal material in space under microgravity conditions.

BioAsteroid, a space biomining experiment, uses a collection of 12 automatic culturing devices fitted with a layer of material on which bacteria and fungus will be grown. The project will investigate the growth of the bacteria and fungus on asteroidal material in microgravity, studying biofilm formation, bioleaching and other chemical and biological changes in microgravity, including the genetic transcriptional changes in space.

This follows an earlier experiment investigating the formation of biofilms on natural surfaces and the bioleaching of elements from basaltic rock, BioRock. This experimental apparatus, which flew to the space station in 2019 with SpaceX, is a miniature bioreactor, and allowed the scientists to study how microbes grow in space and what effect microgravity has on their growth.

BioAsteroid scientists will be flying their second experiment to the International Space Station in November this year.

The UK Centre for Astrobiology, which involves a number of School of Physics and Astronomy researchers, and Kayser Space have collaborated on the project, which is the first European experiment to be fast-tracked to the International Space Station through the Bioreactor Express programme.

Prof. Charles Cockell, School of Physics and Astronomy, said:

By studying biofilm formation of these organisms on the asteroidal material in microgravity, BioAsteroid will investigate how space conditions ultimately affect microbe-mineral interactions, addressing questions on the biochemistry of the organisms, biofilm morphology and structure, fungal attachment and the ability of the microbes to break down rock, a key process for the future use of microorganisms in space exploration, including the mining of asteroids.

Dr. Rosa Santomartino, School of Physics and Astronomy, said:

Microorganisms perform many useful tasks on Earth, and they will be essential for human space exploration. With BioRock first and BioAsteroid now, we are investigating this possibility and advancing our knowledge on microbial response to space conditions, with benefits for both space and terrestrial bioindustry.

The Science Verification Test for BioAsteroid will take place later this month in Edinburgh, where the microbes will be grown for the first time on the actual flight culturing hardware. The experiment is scheduled to be launched to the International Space Station with SpaceX in November 2020.