Like Earth, planetary bodies like the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and comets have large deposits of valuable resources. This has attracted the attention of researchers and industry, with the aim of someday extracting mining as a way to support the space economy.
But creating any mining industry off Earth will not be easy. Let’s see what we have in front of us.
Local use of resources
When you think about extraterrestrial mining, you can imagine taking materials out of various bodies in space and bringing them to Earth. But that is unlikely to be the first commercially viable example.
If we want to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, as proposed by NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration), we should supply the astronauts living there. Resources like water can only be partially recycled.
At the same time, resources are very expensive to get out of the Earth. In 2018, it cost about $ 2,560 to launch a kilogram of material into low Earth orbit, and more to launch higher or higher to the Moon. Most likely, the materials extracted from the space will be used in space to help save these costs.
Collecting the necessary materials on the spot is called “using the resources ‘in situ’. Ice can range from mining to harvesting to building structures. NASA is exploring the possibility of building buildings on the Moon with 3D printers.
Space mining can also transform satellite management. The current practice is to orbit the satellites after 10 to 20 years, when the fuel runs out. One of the big goals of space companies like Orbit Fab is to design a type of satellite that can be equipped using space-driven propellers.
Even for low-orbit Earth satellites, the energy required to reach them from the Moon is less than that required to reach Earth.
What resources are available?
In terms of offshore mining opportunities, there are few resources that are abundant and valuable. Some asteroids contain a large number of iron, nickel, gold, and platinum metal groups that can be used for construction and electronics.
The lunar regulator (rock and soil) contains helium-3, and could be a valuable resource in the future if nuclear fusion is feasible and widespread. The British company Metalysis developed a process that could extract oxygen from the lunar regulite.
On the surface of the moon there is hope for ice, in craters that are constantly in the shade near its poles. We also believe that there is ice on the surface of Mars, asteroids and comets. This could be used to keep it alive or to break it down into oxygen and hydrogen, which can then be used as a propellant.
How would we do in the mining space?
My (Michael) PhD. they tested how exploration techniques would work on the Moon and Mars. Our other work was on economic models for Mars ice mining and computer models for the stability of lunar tunnels.
Some of the proposals for offshore mining are similar to those of overland mining. For example, we could mine a lunar ruler with a cube-wheel excavator or an asteroid using a tunneling machine.
Other lesser-known propositions, such as the use of a vacuum-like machine to pull a regulator from a tube (used to a limited extent in earth excavations).
Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Australian National University are proposing the use of biomedicine. In the process, bacteria entering an asteroid would consume certain materials and generate gas, which could then be picked up by a probe.
The challenges remain
Our work at the UNSW Australian Center for Space Engineering Research involves finding ways to reduce risks in the space resources industry. Needless to say, there are many technical and economic challenges.
The same start-up costs, which are so eager to start exploring offshore, also make it expensive to bring mining equipment into space. Mining operations should be as light as possible to make them profitable (or even viable).
Also, the farther away something is from Earth, the more time it takes to get there. There is a delay of up to 40 minutes to send a command to a Mars probe and find out if it has been successful.
The moon has a 2.7-second communication delay and may be easier to mine remotely. Objects close to the Earth also have Earth-like orbits, and from time to time the Earth’s distances are similar to those of the Moon. They are perfect candidates for mining because they require little energy to get back and forth.
Extraterrestrial mining should be largely automated or remotely controlled, taking into account the additional challenges of sending humans into space, such as the need for life support, radiation prevention, and additional firing costs.
But even Earth-based mining systems are not fully automated. Robotics will need to improve before the asteroids come out.
Although spacecraft have also landed on asteroids that have landed on asteroids several times and taken to Woomer (South Australia) on missions 1 and 2 in Hayabusa, our success rate in landing on asteroids and comets is still low.
In 2014, the Philae probe, sent to comet 67P / Churyumov / Gerasimenko, crashed to the ground in a failed landing attempt.
There are also environmental issues. Space mining can help reduce the amount of mining required on Earth. But that’s if extraterrestrial mining causes less, or more, rocket fire, or resources can enter and be used on Earth.
While gathering resources in space means not having to shoot from Earth, more shots could necessarily happen as the space economy grows.
And then there is the question of whether the proposed mining techniques will work in space environments. Different planetary bodies have different atmospheres (or none at all), gravity, geology, and electrostatic environments (e.g., they may have electrically charged earth as a result of particles from the Sun).
It remains to be seen how these conditions will affect offshore operations.
But the work goes on
Although still in its infancy, many companies are currently developing technologies for extraterrestrial mining, space resource exploration, and other space uses.
The Canadian Space Mining Corporation is developing the infrastructure needed to sustain life in space, including oxygen generators and other machinery.
The US company OffWorld is developing industrial robots for operations on Earth, the Moon, asteroids and Mars. And Asteroid Mining Corporation is also working to establish a space resource market.
Michael Dello-Iacovo is affiliated with the Animal Justice Party and the Sentience Institute.
Serkan Saydam receives funding from the ARC, ACARP, CRC-P, ESA and the Australia-Korea Foundation. New South Wales University, Sydney (Australian Center for Space Engineering Research) and School of Mineral Resources and Energy Engineering, Rock Mechanics International Society Planetary Rock Mechanics Committee, Mining Teachers Association and AusIMM, AeEe, Australian Engineers, Australian Geomechanics Society and AIAA members member.
Michael Dello-Iacovo, Casual Academic, University of New South Wales, Sydney
Serkan Saydam, Land Mining, Future Mining, Mining Systems, University of New South Wales, Sydney