This underground lab may unravel the complexities of human habitation on the Moon and Mars

It is named Bio-SPHERE, which stands for Biomedical Sub-surface Pod for Habitability and Extreme-environments Research in Expeditions. 
Mrigakshi Dixit
The underground facility
The underground facility

University of Birmingham  

A unique research facility nestled 1.1 kilometers underground in North Yorkshire could teach us about human habitation on celestial bodies.  

Researchers from the University of Birmingham have created the facility in one of the U.K.'s deepest mines. The tunnel-like structure burrows through a 250-million-year-old rock salt formation. 

It is named Bio-SPHERE, which stands for Biomedical Sub-surface Pod for Habitability and Extreme-environments Research in Expeditions. 

Experiments planned for this facility

This isolated, underground environment allows for the recreation of "operational conditions” that humans will likely encounter in lunar and Martian caverns. It may provide valuable insights into how scientific and medical operations will be carried out in the harsh deep space environments of the Moon and Mars in the future.

According to the official release, the researchers intend to investigate the challenges and complexities of long-duration space missions, including the health implications of staying in deep space.

The facility offers an opportunity to examine the viability of underground habitats to protect future astronauts from the prevalent risk of lethal deep-space radiation. The underground facility has an "ultra-low radiation environment," allowing researchers to test various living strategies for lunar and Martian explorers. 

Not only that, the researchers hope to use this one-of-a-kind lab to conduct biomedical research for space missions. They will conduct experiments to "prepare materials for treating tissue damage" in regenerative medicine. This testing necessitates using various complex materials, such as fluids, polymers, and hydrogels. 

“This new capability will help to gather the information that can advise on the life support systems, devices, and biomaterials which could be used in medical emergencies and tissue repair following damage in deep-space missions,” said Dr. Alexandra Lordachescu, from the University of Birmingham’s School of Chemical Engineering, and lead researcher of this project, in an official release.

The team has collaborated with the Boulby Underground Laboratory, an underground facility at the same location, which conducts research on particle physics, Earth sciences, and astrobiology. 

“The challenges ahead for humankind in exploring habitats beyond Earth are clearly many and significant. The Bio-SPHERE project promises to help answer some key logistical questions in establishing sustainable living conditions in remote, subterranean environments and in doing so will significantly contribute to the essential preparations for our collective long, difficult, and exciting journey ahead. It is also a great example of the diverse range of science studies that can be carried out in a deep underground science facility, and we are very happy to be hosting it,” said Professor Sean Paling, Director and Senior Scientist at the Boulby Underground laboratory.

As humanity has set its sights on distant deep space worlds, scientific exploration of Earth is highly important, and Bio-SPHERE is a step in that direction.

A paper describing habitat has been published in Nature (NPJ) Microgravity.

Study abstract:

Numerous technical scenarios have been developed to facilitate a human return to the Moon, and as a testbed for a subsequent mission to Mars. Crews appointed with constructing and establishing planetary bases will require a superior level of physical ability to cope with the operational demands. However, the challenging environments of nearby planets (e.g. geological, atmospheric, gravitational conditions) as well as the lengthy journeys through microgravity, will lead to progressive tissue degradation and an increased susceptibility to injury. The isolation, distance and inability to evacuate in an emergency will require autonomous medical support, as well as a range of facilities and specialised equipment to repair tissue damage on-site. Here, we discuss the design requirements of such a facility, in the form of a habitat that would concomitantly allow tissue substitute production, maintenance and surgical implantation, with an emphasis on connective tissues. The requirements for the individual modules and their operation are identified. Several concepts are assessed, including the presence of adjacent wet lab and medical modules supporting the gradual implementation of regenerative biomaterials and acellular tissue substitutes, leading to eventual tissue grafts and, in subsequent decades, potential tissues/organ-like structures. The latter, currently in early phases of development, are assessed particularly for researching the effects of extreme conditions on representative analogues for astronaut health support. Technical solutions are discussed for bioengineering in an isolated planetary environment with hypogravity, from fluid-gel bath suspended manufacture to cryostorage, cell sourcing and on-site resource utilisation for laboratory infrastructure. Surgical considerations are also discussed.

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