How scientists hope to eventually use bioengineered microbes to mine asteroids

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Feb 11, 2015, 4:31 PM EST (Updated)

Our planet is a pretty big place, but the resources are finite — and eventually we’re gonna use ‘em all up. Luckily, there’s a whole lot of places in space that have the stuff we need.

The asteroid-mining firm Deep Space Industries (DSI) is working on some new technology that could help speed the process along, in the form of bioengineered microbes that could be injected into space rocks to start processing them ahead of an eventual mining expedition. 

Basically, the idea is to send a probe loaded up with microbes that will be injected into the rock and, over a 10-to-20-year period, those microbes would break down harmful materials and process the rock into more usable metals. 

It’s a fascinating concept, and it could cut down on a lot of the work required to actually mine asteroids for material. Joseph Grace, of DSI and NASA's Ames Research Center, told Space the approach may be the break needed to make space mining a more feasible reality in the future:

“You could come back [to the asteroids] in 10 to 20 years and have a preprocessed pile of materials … The use of self-sustaining biomining mitigates the need for sustained docking, anchoring, drilling, processing or other technically challenging traditional mining approaches. If shown to function, the use of life to preprocess valuable deep-space resources could change the economic practicality of a large range of human activity in space.”

Obviously, this concept is still in the very (very) early phases, but it’s a cool idea. The next phase of testing will work to see how these potential microbes might function in the vacuum of space ... which, admittedly, is a big part of the puzzle.

(Via Space)