Deep underground tunnels in North Yorkshire are being utilized for an extraordinary purpose: studying the potential for human habitation and operations on celestial bodies like the moon and Mars. The University of Birmingham has embarked on the Bio-SPHERE project, set within an unprecedented research facility situated 1.1 km below ground level. This unique endeavor focuses on understanding the intricacies of scientific and medical tasks in the challenging environments of other worlds.
The project represents the initial step among several planned laboratory facilities that aim to examine how humans can effectively function and maintain their well-being during extended space missions—a critical factor in ensuring the success of future interplanetary endeavors.
Collaborating with the Boulby Underground Laboratory, which is dedicated to particle physics, Earth sciences, and astrobiology research, the University of Birmingham’s team is utilizing a network of tunnels spanning 3,000 cubic meters. These tunnels are adjacent to the Boulby Laboratory and traverse ancient rock salt deposits that formed around 250 million years ago during the existence of the Zechstein Sea. This geological context, combined with the deep subsurface location, provides an ideal setting for replicating the operational conditions encountered by humans working in similar cavernous environments on celestial bodies such as the moon and Mars. These conditions include isolation, limited access to new resources, and the logistical challenges of moving heavy equipment.
Moreover, the substantial depth of the tunnels offers an ultra-low radiation environment, making it possible for scientists to investigate the effectiveness of underground habitats in shielding space crews from deep-space radiation—an eminent hazard in space exploration. Furthermore, the location also enables the study of additional threats, such as potential damage to life-support infrastructure caused by falling meteorite debris.
By harnessing the unique attributes of these underground tunnels, the Bio-SPHERE project aims to unravel the complexities of sustaining human presence and conducting vital operations in the extreme and inhospitable environments beyond Earth.
As part of the Bio-SPHERE project (Biomedical Sub-surface Pod for Habitability and Extreme-environments Research in Expeditions), the first facility focuses on testing biomedical procedures required for preparing materials to treat tissue damage. This specially designed 3-meter-wide simulation module examines complex fluids, polymers, and hydrogels used in regenerative medicine, such as wound dressings or fillers for damage mitigation.
A recent publication in npj Microgravity detailed the concept and design of this habitat, which combines the simulation facilities and a favorable geological environment with access to adjacent physics and chemistry laboratories. This integration enables the simulation of various mission scenarios and facilitates interdisciplinary research on the effects of extreme environments on biological and physicochemical parameters, medical infrastructure, and the utilization of available in-situ resources for habitat construction, such as ambient pressure, temperature, and geology.
Dr. Alexandra Iordachescu, the lead researcher from the University of Birmingham’s School of Chemical Engineering, expressed enthusiasm about partnering with the esteemed science team at the Boulby Underground Laboratory. This new capability will gather vital information to inform the development of life support systems, devices, and biomaterials for medical emergencies and tissue repair during deep-space missions.
The metrics obtained through this research will guide system design and assess the scientific requirements and feasible timelines for bioengineering operations within isolated environments like space habitats. The insights gained will have applications on Earth as well, particularly in delivering biomedical interventions in remote or hazardous areas and enhancing understanding of biomedical workflows in non-ideal environments.
Professor Sean Paling, Director and Senior Scientist at the Boulby Underground Laboratory, expressed delight in collaborating with Dr. Iordachescu and the University of Birmingham team. He highlighted the numerous and significant challenges that lie ahead for humanity in establishing sustainable living conditions beyond Earth. The Bio-SPHERE project is poised to address key logistical questions related to remote subterranean environments, making substantial contributions to the necessary preparations for our collective journey into the long, challenging, and thrilling future. The project also exemplifies the diverse range of scientific studies possible within a deep underground science facility, making it a welcomed host for the research.
Source: University of Birmingham