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NASA may want to send bacteria to the Moon and Mars after all

Published Nov 10th, 2020 8:14PM EST
moon bacteria
Image: NASA

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  • Research from the International Space Station reveals the benefits of using bacteria to extract minerals from material found on the Moon and Mars.
  • One specific bacteria is capable of extracting rare earth elements from volcanic rock under multiple gravity conditions.
  • NASA has historically avoided contaminating its mission with bacteria, but it turns out they may be helpful.

NASA has always done its best to ensure that its missions are as sterile as possible. Sending bacteria from Earth into space is a bad idea for a number of reasons, but new research suggests that certain bacteria may be useful. The research, which was published in Nature Communications, reveals that Earthly bacteria could help extract minerals from the material that covers the surfaces of the Moon and Mars.

The research, which is based on experiments performed on the International Space Station, revealed that one specific bacteria called Sphingomonas desiccabilis is particularly good at extracting rare earth elements from basalt, a type of volcanic rock that was used as an analog for what might be found on the Moon and Mars.

The bacteria were able to perform their little trick in standard Earth gravity, microgravity, and gravity that mimics that of Mars. That’s important news for researchers, and it could signal a partnership between humans and bacteria during future explorations of space.

Typically, NASA and other space agencies do whatever they can to prevent bacteria from making it to space. The idea is that we don’t want to accidentally seed another world with life, as it could cause problems later on. If we eventually send crewed missions or more advanced rovers to a place like Mars and then discover bacteria there, we might mistake Earthly bacteria that we brought our selves for genuine Martian life. That would be a pretty embarrassing mix-up, and it’s something that scientists would like to avoid.

However, bacteria are capable of some pretty incredible things, and we’ve already seen discussion of using bacteria either as a food source or in the production of food for future long-haul missions to places like Mars. Now, it seems, bacteria may help us make the most of the material we find on those planets as well.

“Our experiments lend support to the scientific and technical feasibility of biologically enhanced elemental mining across the Solar System,” Charles Cockell, lead author of the work, said in a statement. “For example, our results suggest that the construction of robotic and human-tended mines in the Oceanus Procellarum region of the Moon, which has rocks with enriched concentrations of rare earth elements, could be one fruitful direction of human scientific and economic development beyond Earth.”

NASA’s Artemis missions to the Moon are coming up shortly, and with crewed missions included in that program, humans will have plenty of time to toy around with the material covering the Moon’s surface. At that point, we may learn a great deal more about how bacteria could pave the way to a sustainable existence in space.

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