Like Earth, planetary bodies such as the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and comets contain significant deposits of valuable resources. This has caught the attention of researchers and industry alike, with hopes of mining them one day to support a space economy.
But setting up an alien mining industry will be no small feat. Let’s see what we run into.
In-situ use of resources
When you think of mining beyond Earth, you can imagine taking materials from various bodies in space and returning them to Earth. But this is probably not the first commercially viable example.
If we want to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, like NASA has proposed:, we should supply astronauts living there. Resources such as water can only be reused to a certain extent.
At the same time, raw materials are extremely expensive to launch from Earth. From 2018 it is cost about A$3,645 to launch one kilogram of material into low Earth orbit, and more to launch it higher, or onto the moon. It is likely that materials extracted in space will be used in space to save on these costs.
Harvesting material needed on site is referred to as “in-situ resource use”. It can be anything from mining ice to collecting soil to build structures. NASA is currently exploring the possibility of building buildings on the moon with 3d printing†
Mining in space could also change satellite management. Current practice is to take satellites out of orbit after 10-20 years if they run out of fuel. A lofty goal of aerospace companies like Orbit Fab is to design a kind of satellite that… fueled up using propellant collected in space.
Even for satellites in low Earth orbit, the energy required to reach them from the Moon is less than that required to reach them from Earth.
What resources are there?
When it comes to mining opportunities beyond Earth, there are a few resources that are both abundant and valuable. Some asteroids contain huge amounts of iron, nickel, gold and platinum group metals, which can be used in construction and electronics.
Lunar regolith (rock and earth) contains helium-3, which could become a valuable resource in the future if nuclear fusion becomes viable and widespread. The British company Metalysis has developed a process that extract oxygen from lunar regolith†
ice is expects to exist on the surface of the moon, at permanently shadowed craters near the poles. We also think there is ice under the surface of Mars, asteroids and comets. This can be used to sustain life, or it can be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen and used as a propellant.
How would we mine in space?
My (Michael’s) Ph.D. dissertation involved testing how exploration techniques would work on the moon and Mars† Our other work has included economic modeling for: ice mining on Mars and computer modeling on the stability of tunnels on the moon.
Some proposals for mining beyond Earth are similar to mining on Earth. For example, we can mine lunar regolith with a backhoe excavatoror mine an asteroid using a tunnel boring machine†
Other proposals are more unknown – such as using a vacuum-like machine to pull up regolith in a tube (which has been used to a limited extent in excavations on Earth).
Researchers from the University of New South Wales Sydney and the Australian National University propose to biomining† In this, bacteria introduced into an asteroid would consume certain minerals and produce a gas, which can then be harvested and collected by a probe.
Huge challenges remain
Our work at UNSWs Australian Center for Space Engineering Research involves finding ways to reduce risks in an aerospace industry. It goes without saying that there are many technical and economic challenges.
The same launch costs that get so many people excited to start mining off-Earth also mean it’s expensive to get mining equipment into space. Mining operations will need to be as light as possible to be cost effective (or even feasible).
In addition, the farther something is from Earth, the longer it takes to reach it. There is a delay of up to 40 minutes in sending a command to a Mars rover and finding out if it was successful.
The moon has only a 2.7 second delay in communication and may be easier to mine remotely. Near-Earth objects also have orbits similar to Earth, and occasionally go along the earth at distances comparable to the moon. They are an ideal candidate for mining, as they require little energy to reach and return.
Off-Earth mining should be largely automated, or remotely controlled, given the additional challenges of sending humans into space — such as needing life support, avoiding radiation and additional launch costs.
However, even mining systems on Earth are not yet fully automated. Robotics will have to improve before asteroids can be mined.
While spacecraft have landed on asteroids several times and even picked up samples – which were returned to Woomera in South Australia during Hayabusa 1 and 2. missions – our overall success rate for landing on asteroids and comets is low.
In 2014, the Philae lander, sent to comet 67P/Churyumov/Gerasimenko, crashed into the famous in a ditch during a failed landing attempt.
There are also environmental considerations. Mining in space can help reduce the amount of mining needed on Earth. But that’s if mining outside the Earth results in fewer, not more, rocket launches, or the resources are returned to and used on Earth.
While collecting resources in space may mean not launching them from Earth, more launches can inevitably occur as the space economy grows.
Then there is the question of whether proposed mining techniques will even work in space environments† Different planetary bodies have different atmospheres (or none), gravitational, geology, and electrostatic environments (for example, they may have electrically charged ground due to particles from the sun†
How these conditions will affect operations beyond Earth is still largely unknown.
But work is in progress
While still in its infancy, a number of companies are currently developing technologies for off-Earth mining, exploration of space resources, and for other uses in space.
the Canadian Space Mining Corporation is developing the infrastructure needed to support life in space, including oxygen generators and other machinery.
US based company OffWorld develops industrial robots for operations on Earth, the Moon, asteroids and Mars. And the Asteroid Mining Corporation is also working to establish a market for space resources.
Article by Michael Dello-Iacovocasual academic, UNSW Sydney and Serkan SaydamAlien mining, future mining, mining systems, UNSW Sydney
This article was republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article†