Scientists are under great pressure to find solutions to the problems of global warming, pollution, and depleting resources by pushing the boundaries of exploration and creating new technologies.
By doing this, they are thinking broadly: they are considering not only how to address these issues on a domestic level but also how to improve the effectiveness and sustainability of space exploration.
But as it turns out, some solutions come from having a limited perspective.
This week, researchers from five continents published a report in Nature Communications that claimed microbe-based technologies could increase the sustainability and affordability of future life in space.
“We wanted to remind the scientific community… that microbes can genuinely support human space exploration, and especially that they can support it in a sustainable way,”Rosa Santomartino, the lead author of the report and researcher at the UK Centre for Astrobiology in Edinburgh,
They picture space-based microbe colonies being used to produce new medicines, clean air through recycling, and even “protein- and lipid-rich microbial biomass for food production” by utilizing microbes that feed on human waste.
In a recent interview, Rosa Santomartino, the report’s lead author and a researcher at the UK Centre for Astrobiology in Edinburgh, said, “We wanted to tell the scientific community… that microorganisms can really support human space exploration, and particularly that they can support it in a sustainable way.”
Santomartino told CNET, “Microbes are really amazing and perform a lot of tasks for us on Earth, often with no awareness on our part.”. Microbes are frequently employed in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, in the production of insulin and antibiotics, as well as in the extraction of metals from mines and, more recently, in the construction of structures.
To make space research “more circular,” or more self-sustaining, the researchers cover nine different strategies. These are a few of the crucial ideas.
- More effectively than mechanical processes, microbial processes can mine rocks to find and extract valuable elements. According to the report, biomining for copper, gold, and nickel is already cost-effective on a commercial scale.
- Using biogeochemical cycles to make restricting specialists can be utilized for the primary fix. As a result, less expensive raw materials would be required for building construction and upkeep.
- Recyclers are great for microbes. The same plastics may only be recycled a few times using current methods before their quality becomes unacceptable. However, microbes that eat plastic break it down into its original components, which can then be used to make new, sound plastic.
- Anaerobic microorganisms devour human waste. They are able to generate electric charges by doing so. These electrics can power lights and appliances at a low cost and reduce organic waste at the same time.
- Heavy metals, radioactive compounds, acids, and other pollutants can all be eliminated from soil using microbes.
- Bioremediation of air In space habitats, this may be able to clean the air. Although current methods of removing carbon dioxide from the air are not particularly effective, a significant amount of hydrogen and carbon must be replaced. Microbial remediation has the potential to remove carbon dioxide from the air while keeping carbon for use in the production of food and supplements.
The researchers’ enthusiasm for a microbial approach to space exploration is unmistakable. “The discussion regarding the public benefits of space flight and exploration is legitimate and vital,” the paper says, “but space enthusiasts may now have an opportunity to win this fight for a generation in the field of sustainability.”
More information: Rosa Santomartino et al, Toward sustainable space exploration: a roadmap for harnessing the power of microorganisms, Nature Communications (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-37070-2