Deep underground tunnels could hold the key to habitability on Mars

Mars base

Researchers from the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with the Boulby Underground Laboratory, have embarked on the Bio-SPHERE project in deep tunnels in North Yorkshire to study potential living and operating conditions on the Moon and Mars. This innovative project explores how scientific, medical and bioengineering procedures would be performed in harsh, remote and isolated environments similar to those on other planets.

Deep beneath the surface of North Yorkshire, the underground tunnels offer a unique opportunity to study how humans might be able to live and operate on the Moon or on Mars.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham have launched the Bio-SPHERE project in a unique research environment located 1.1km underground in one of the deepest mining sites in the UK. This project aims to explore how scientific and medical activities could be conducted amid the harsh conditions found on Mars and the Moon.

It is the first in a series of new laboratory facilities planned to study how humans might work and stay healthy during long space missions, a key requirement to ensure mission continuity to other planets.

The team is working in partnership with the Boulby Underground Laboratory, a 4,000m3 deep underground facility focused on particle physics, earth science and astrobiological research, operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (part of UK Research and Innovation) with support from the operators of the Boulby Mine, ICL-UK.

The Bio-SPHERE project is based on a 3,000 m3 tunnel network adjacent to the Boulby Laboratory, which passes through 250 million-year-old rock salt deposits made up of Permian evaporite layers left over from the Zechstein Sea. This geological setting, coupled with the location deep underground, has allowed researchers to recreate the operating conditions humans would experience working in similar caverns on the Moon and Mars. This includes remoteness, limited access to new materials, and the challenges of moving heavy equipment.

At the same time, thanks to the ultra-low radiation environment provided by that depth, the location will allow scientists to investigate the effectiveness of subterranean habitats in protecting space crews from deep space radiation, which poses a significant risk in space exploration, as well as other hazards, such as falling debris from meteorites, which threatens to damage life-support infrastructure.

The first facility to be opened as part of Bio-SPHERE (Biomedical Sub-surface Pod for Habitability and Extreme-environments Research in Expeditions), it is based on a 3-metre-wide simulation module and is specifically designed to test the biomedical procedures needed to prepare materials for treating tissue damage. These include complex fluids, polymers and hydrogels for regenerative medicine which could be used, for example, in wound dressings or fillers to mitigate damage.

A paper describing the concept and design of such a habitat was recently published in Nature (NPJ) Microgravity.

Including a range of sterile work and material processing capabilities, Bio-SPHERE combines these simulation facilities and helpful geological environments with access to adjacent physics and chemistry laboratory facilities.

This environment offers the opportunity to simulate various mission scenarios and conduct cutting-edge interdisciplinary science, ranging from the effects of extreme environments on biological and physicochemical parameters and medical infrastructure, to studying how available in situ resources such as environmental pressure, temperature and geology can be utilized for habitat construction.

Lead researcher Dr. Alexandra Iordachescu, in University of Birminghams School of Chemical Engineering, said: We are thrilled to partner with the fantastic science team at Boulby Underground Laboratory. This new capability will help gather information that can advise on life support systems, devices and biomaterials that could be used in medical emergencies and tissue repair following damage in deep space missions.

These types of metrics can guide system design and help assess scientific needs and acceptable timing in bioengineering operations under the constraints of isolated environments, such as space habitats. The data is also likely to bring numerous benefits for land-based applications, such as the delivery of biomedical interventions in remote areas or hazardous environments and, more generally, understanding biomedical workflows in these less than ideal environments.

Professor Sean Paling, director and senior scientist at the Boulby underground laboratory, said: We are very pleased to be working with Dr Iordachescu and the team from the University of Birmingham on this exciting work. The future challenges for humanity in exploring beyond-Earth habitats are clearly many and significant. The Bio-SPHERE project promises to help answer some key logistical questions for establishing sustainable living conditions in remote and underground environments and in doing so will contribute significantly to essential preparations for our collective long, difficult and exciting journey. It is also a great example of the wide range of scientific studies that can be done in an underground science facility and we are very happy to host it.

Reference: Space Habitats for Bioengineering and Surgical Repair: Addressing the Requirement of Reconstructive and Research Tissues During Deep Space Missions by Alexandra Iordachescu, Neil Eisenstein and Gareth Appleby-Thomas, 25 March 2023, npj Microgravity.
DOI: 10.1038/s41526-023-00266-3

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