Since 2012, Boulby has been the home of BISAL (the Boulby International Subsurface Astrobiology Laboratory). The first of its kind in the world, BISAL provided a unique space for astrobiologists to study life in the deep subsurface, particularly in evaporites that are an extreme and sometimes uninhabitable environment for microorganisms. Shortly after its conception, the substantial opportunities associated with such a space became apparent and from that laboratory grew a rich programme of studies into life deep underground, such as investigations of the types of life underground and the effects of deep subsurface conditions on life, such as the influence of low background radiation. The evaporites in Boulby also provide insights into the habitability of briny environments elsewhere, such as brines and evaporites on and in the subsurface of Mars, our nearest planetary neighbour.
With such strong links forming between Boulby and planetary exploration, a collaboration named MINAR (MINe Analogue Research) was formed by the UK Centre for Astrobiology. The collaboration, comprising of groups from NASA, ESA, Surrey Space Centre, DLR and more, began using Boulby mine and the Boulby Laboratory as a base to test equipment and robotics for planetary exploration, such as instruments destined for the Moon and Mars. In particular, since MINAR occurs in a working mine, MINAR offers the opportunity to explore the interface and technology transfer between planetary sciences and mining. Both communities seek the development small, lightweight, robust instruments that can be used to explore and characterise environments. To date there have been five MINAR expeditions at Boulby attracting groups from around the world with the most recent event, MINAR V, hosting a record number of scientists (and an ESA astronaut!), in the laboratory.
In 2017, Boulby completed construction of a new underground laboratory. As part of this process and due to the success of previous MINAR events, the new laboratory features a dedicated 'Mars Yard', providing scientists and engineers with a tailored space for rover technology research and development. This area includes over 200m2 of experimental space with Wi-Fi access throughout, an array of rock samples and changeable terrain, and an air conditioned control room from which remote operations can be conducted. In addition to the practicalities for rover research, it is also anticipated that some of the instrumentation development work will be of relevance to industrial geological exploration needs, such as those found in mining, and such practises may also be tested here.
So far, several instruments tested at Boulby Underground Laboratory have been accepted onto future Mars exploration missions and it is hoped future MINAR events will bring more, leading to the possibility of remotely testing complete rovers underground.
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