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Mining Minerals in Space


Credit: Delphotostock

By Serkan Saydam

Space is a vast source of valuable minerals that could soon propel an extraterrestrial mining industry that underpins a colony on Mars.

Mineral resources on the Earth have been exploited for the past 7000 years and have contributed to social and economic prosperity. Wherever there are valuable minerals, people will arrive to mine them – even if they must combat extreme conditions and take excessive risks.

The motivation for off-Earth mining is clear: an abundance of valuable resources that can feed our technologically driven society, the necessity of discovering new places that our society can colonise, and the development of new technologies and processes to enable these missions will create spin-off technologies that can be used in our terrestrial operations.

In the near future, commercial opportunities will include the mining of asteroids, comets, the Moon, Mars and Mars’ moons, which represent the most distant supplies of wealth that humankind has ever considered recovering. Obtaining off-Earth resources also has a second, almost priceless sustainable value – they can be recovered without disturbing the Earth.

In the past couple of years, private corporations have shown interest in conducting the direct commercial exploration of minerals on planetary bodies. These companies have aimed to extract minerals mainly from asteroids and the Moon. The first target minerals are water, platinum-group metals and some volatile products such as oxygen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphate.

Planetary Resources Inc. and Deep Space Industries Inc. are currently constructing initial versions of specialised space telescopes to detect resources in distant asteroids and catalogue them in privately owned databases. Moon Express and Shackleton Energy are developing Moon landers designed for the rapid evaluation of water and minerals of interest in the lunar subsurface.

NASA’s resource prospecting mission is currently under development. It aims to be the first mining expedition on the Moon, and will use the RESOLVE Rover to locate elements from a lunar polar region and excavate volatiles such as hydrogen, oxygen and water.

Asteroids, Comets and the Moon

Scientists believe there is an abundance of valuable resources in asteroids and comets that circle around the Sun at about the same speed and distance as the Earth orbits the Sun. When you consider that there are about two million Near Earth Asteroids, it’s not hard to see that commercial launch systems and advanced robotics technologies will soon make space-based mining financially viable.

Previous research has found that asteroids have several commodities of interest: water and volatiles, precious metals, rare earth minerals, refractory materials, iron and nickel. Comets, on the other hand, have been viewed by the naked eye from the Earth and contain a mixture of gas, dust and water vapour.

However, water must be considered the most important commodity in the development of a space economy. Hydrolysis of water produces hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used as a rocket fuel to resupply satellites and spacecraft. Hence there is a common belief that water will be the currency of space.

A study conducted at UNSW Australia investigated the potential economic benefits of an off-Earth operation for asteroids. This study examined the metallic asteroid 1986 DA, which is 2.3 km diameter and contains 88% iron, 10% nickel and 0.5% cobalt. It’s essentially made up of naturally occurring stainless steel, and is located approximately 75 million km from the Earth – a similar distance between the Earth and Mars – at the closest point of its orbit.

The study concluded that extracting minerals from this asteroid and bringing back to Earth is not economically viable, but if the asteroid is halfway closer to the Earth then the operation starts becoming viable. Moreover, if the end use of the minerals is closer to the asteroid, excessive transport will be eliminated and the operation becomes financially viable. Hence it’s necessary to create a market in space to use these minerals.

The Moon, on the other hand, will most probably be the first off-Earth body that humans colonise. The colonisation purpose most likely will be for tourism or as a staging post for missions to Mars or beyond.

According to most researchers and futurists, the Moon regolith would be an ideal material that can be used to construct facilities required by humans. Furthermore, yttrium, lanthanum, and samarium are increasingly critical in the manufacturing of high-tech products such as tablet computers, missiles, electric vehicles and wind turbines, and helium-3 is a non-radioactive nuclear fusion fuel that is considered the safest energy source of the future. All of these are abundant on the Moon.

Mission to Mars

Many researchers agree that Mars is the most logical destination for the next manned visit to interplanetary space. The viability of a Mars colony may be considered by some to be a science fiction scenario but many believe it will be possible within the next 50 years. In fact NASA and other space development bodies have set a goal of landing humans on Mars and ultimately forming the early stages of a Mars colony.

Such a colony will need in situ resources, not only for its own survival but to prosper and grow. The colony must create a market by satisfying the demand for in situ resources from and on Mars. Therefore, knowledge of terrestrial mining is crucial to achieve this goal.

Since the earliest explorations that NASA conducted on Mars in the 1960s, the search for natural resources has been a major research theme to evaluate the viability of future human colonisation of the red planet. Water, an essential resource for life and now with potential use as a rocket fuel, has been largely addressed.

There are three main regions where water exists on Mars: the north and south poles, and the equatorial region. However, these regions have different conditions and associated risks for possible water exploitation operations.

The equatorial region is the most promising location for colonisation in terms of the environment. It has warmer temperature (–87C° to +26 C°) and transportation can be relatively easier than at the polar regions. However, ice formation is unstable on the surface.

In the polar regions, more extreme weather conditions are expected, but they have smoother landscapes and more stable ground. Most importantly, ice (and hence water) is abundant in these regions.

Heavy Lifting

The history of mining has proven that to feed our society we have to produce a large amount of minerals using large and heavy equipment fleets. Considering the extremely high launching cost from Earth to any off-Earth body, transporting these fleets from Earth is almost impossible. Therefore, we would need to develop entirely different mining systems that can also cope with extreme environmental conditions.

There are obvious questions to be asked:

  • can we use current planning methodologies to design the mines economically?
  • can we modify current mining equipment or do we need to design new technology to mine the minerals?
  • will bigger equipment require too much of astronauts’ valuable time for maintenance, or would it be more efficient to deploy a fleet of smaller equipment?

What we are sure of is that off-Earth mining operations will have to operate autonomously from the base, space stations, mother ship in orbit, or directly from Earth. The actual operation will also have to be conducted by a robotic equipment fleet.

Both space and mining industries work in extreme environmental conditions and have high risks and uncertainties. Therefore, collaboration is necessary between research institutions, governments, and mining and space industries.

There are also some mutual benefits for both industries. For the mining industry, adaptation of systems engineering, implementing information technology and the internet of things, autonomous systems and robotics and big data management. For the space industry, the benefits are operational experience, production efficiency, commodity valuation and creating a market.

What’s Next?

The first off-Earth mining operation will most probably be the sampling of water on asteroids, which will follow up with water extraction and processing to be used as a rocket fuel. Asteroids will then be used to resupply energy for commercial satellites and also will be considered as a fuel station to reach further across the galaxy.

According to some commercial space mining companies this operation can happen within the next 10 years. This achievement will certainly trigger the colonisation of the Moon and Mars. Although estimating the time frame is directly dependent on the research conducted in the related areas, we can say that colonisation on the Moon and Mars can happen within the next 50 years.

Many off-Earth activities have the potential to expand and stimulate the global economy, such as construction materials for off-Earth structures, solar power stations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while expanding energy access, space tourism, propellant depots, and resources for human habitation. Risks to these commercial ventures include legal risks, business cases, and hazards to spacecraft such as space debris.

The uncertainties and challenges are significant, and must be dealt with to establish the knowledge required. Australia has great potential to influence these developments through its leading research capabilities in the areas of mining, space situational awareness, navigation and positioning, robotics, and growing capabilities in space systems engineering. Moves towards the establishment of an Australian space agency are also likely to benefit this industry greatly.

Serkan Saydam is Associate Professor and Research Director of the School of Mining Engineering at UNSW Australia.