In an unprecedented initiative, tunnels deep beneath North Yorkshire are serving as a remarkable testbed for studying the potential for human habitation and operations on the moon and Mars. The University of Birmingham’s researchers have embarked on the Bio-SPHERE project, utilizing a unique research facility located 1.1 km below the Earth’s surface, within one of the UK’s deepest mine sites. This project aims to investigate the scientific and medical challenges of working in the demanding lunar and Martian environments.

The Bio-SPHERE project marks the commencement of a series of laboratory facilities aimed at examining how humans can effectively function and maintain good health during prolonged space missions. Ensuring mission continuity on other celestial bodies necessitates addressing this crucial requirement.

In collaboration with the Boulby Underground Laboratory, a subterranean facility dedicated to particle physics, Earth sciences, and astrobiology research, the Bio-SPHERE project operates within a network of 3,000m³ tunnels adjacent to the Boulby Laboratory. These tunnels traverse ancient rock salt deposits dating back 250 million years, originating from the Zechstein Sea’s Permian evaporite layers. This geological setting, coupled with the deep subsurface location, enables researchers to replicate the operational conditions that humans would encounter while working in similar cavernous environments on the moon and Mars. These conditions include remoteness, limited access to new resources, and the challenges associated with moving heavy equipment.

Furthermore, the Bio-SPHERE project benefits from the ultra-low radiation environment provided by the great depth, allowing scientists to study the efficacy of underground habitats in shielding space crews from deep-space radiation—a significant risk in space exploration. Additionally, the facility enables the investigation of other hazards such as falling meteorite debris that could potentially damage life-support systems.

The inaugural facility within Bio-SPHERE, known as the Biomedical Sub-surface Pod for Habitability and Extreme-environments Research in Expeditions (Bio-SPHERE), consists of a 3-meter-wide simulation module. It is purpose-built for testing biomedical procedures aimed at preparing materials for tissue damage treatment. These materials include complex fluids, polymers, and hydrogels used in regenerative medicine, such as wound dressings or damage mitigation fillers. A paper outlining the concept and design of this habitat was recently published in the journal npj Microgravity.

By combining simulation facilities, a conducive geological environment, and access to adjacent physics and chemistry laboratories, Bio-SPHERE offers a range of capabilities for sterile work and material processing. This environment facilitates the simulation of various mission scenarios and supports cutting-edge interdisciplinary research. The investigations span from studying the effects of extreme environments on biological and physicochemical parameters and medical infrastructure to exploring the utilization of in-situ resources, such as ambient pressure, temperature, and geology, for habitat construction.

Dr. Alexandra Iordachescu, the lead researcher from the University of Birmingham’s School of Chemical Engineering, expressed enthusiasm for partnering with the esteemed science team at the Boulby Underground Laboratory. The project’s newfound capabilities are poised to gather valuable information that can inform the design of life support systems, devices, and biomaterials for medical emergencies and tissue repair in deep-space missions. Dr. Iordachescu noted that these metrics would guide system design, assess scientific needs, and determine acceptable timeframes for bioengineering operations in isolated environments like space habitats. Moreover, the acquired data is likely to yield numerous benefits for terrestrial applications, including delivering biomedical interventions in remote or hazardous areas and gaining a deeper understanding of biomedical workflows in non-ideal environments.

Professor Sean Paling, the Director and Senior Scientist at the Boulby Underground Laboratory, expressed delight in collaborating with Dr. Iordachescu and the University of Birmingham team on this exciting endeavor. He emphasized the multitude of challenges that lie ahead in establishing sustainable living conditions in remote subterranean environments beyond Earth. The Bio-SPHERE project is poised to address key logistical questions and make significant contributions to the essential preparations for the challenging journey that awaits humankind. This endeavor also exemplifies the diverse range of scientific studies that can be conducted within a deep underground science facility.

By Impact Lab