Taking space technology underground

Last month saw the astrobiology group at Edinburgh head down to darkest deepest Whitby, to test out new and existing space technology at Boulby Mine – a sprawling salt mine warren burrowing 1.1 km beneath the bottom of the North Sea. Joining us in the network of tunnels, which are still being actively mined for potash, were scientists from across the UK and the rest of Europe. Our aim: to see how technology developed for robotic space missions (such as Mars rovers) can be used to improve mining techniques and underground safety. Parallel to this objective was the deployment of multiple instruments typical of those sent to explore the surfaces of other planets, such as Mars. This enabled multi-instrument testing on the same rocks, providing vital insight into how instrument suites should be deployed during planetary missions elsewhere. In particular, the evaporitic rocks here, laid down by an evaporating Permian sea 250 million years ago, provide a brilliant analogue to salty environments that may have existed on Mars in the past.

Up on the roof within some parts of the mine, hexagonal desiccation cracks from the evaporating sea can still be seen today, preserved within the salts for 250 million years

Up on the roof within some parts of the mine, hexagonal desiccation cracks from the evaporating sea can still be seen today, preserved within the salts for 250 million years

The programme behind this is MINAR, which stands for Mine Analogue Research. The overarching aim of this programme is to provide a synergy between field testing of robotic instrumentation destined for planetary exploration and transferring the very same tech to practical applications within mining. This programme, currently in its second year of operation, makes use of the infrastructure provided by the STFC-funded Palmer Laboratory – which at 1.1 km is one of the deepest permanent labs in the world, and also hosts world leading research experiments that have been hunting for elusive dark matter over the past 10 years.

Getting ~20 scientists and engineers, and their instruments, safely down into the mine and back again is no easy task. While salt mining is relatively safe compared to say, coal mining, there are still numerous things that can go awry, not the least of which are cave-ins (“keeping the roof off the floor”), gas blow-outs, and fires. The latter was the biggest sticking point for our instruments, which had to be completely spark-proof should any rogue gas be making its way to our underground test site. As for ourselves, we were kitted out in boiler suits, hard hats, head lamps, and self-respirators in preparation for our 7 hour stint deep into the Earth’s crust each day. Once down there, it’s a balmy 30°C in the mine, so big dewers of ice water came down with us too, along with a packed lunch for our subsurface picnic. Once underground, there’s no going back.

Instrument deployments included PanCam (Aberystwyth, Edinburgh) and CLUPI (Space-X, left) and Raman (Leicester, right), all of which are destined for the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars rover mission to Mars in 2018. Other instruments that were tested here included UV imaging (Aberystwyth, Edinburgh), SPLIT and XRF (Leicester).

Instrument deployments included PanCam (Aberystwyth, Edinburgh) and CLUPI (Space-X, left) and Raman (Leicester, right), all of which are destined for the ESA/Roscosmos ExoMars rover mission to Mars in 2018. Other instruments that were tested here included UV imaging (Aberystwyth, Edinburgh), SPLIT and XRF (Leicester).

Subsurface picnic, a well-earned lunch 1.1 km underground. Image credit: Matt Gunn.

Subsurface picnic, a well-earned lunch 1.1 km underground. Image credit: Matt Gunn.

Most of us hadn’t been down the mine before, but it didn’t take long to get everything set up and soon enough data began filling up hard-drives. One of the best things about this programme is that it brings together different people with different areas of expertise, and it wasn’t long before new ideas started popping into existence within our little corner of the mine. After a few days, our group of researchers from Aberystwyth, Edinburgh, Leicester, Neuchatel (Space-X), and DLR (the German Space Agency) had a clear plan for the next MINAR workshop, which will hopefully take place later this year.

Back on the surface, the MINAR II team. Photo credit: Charles Cockell.

Back on the surface, the MINAR II team. Photo credit: Charles Cockell.

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