Mining beyond the ends of the earth


Space mining isn’t just a nice idea, but a complete possibility in the future. The operability of autonomous mining systems is shaping as a key part of unlocking the deposits of outer space. 

Many have aspired to venture into deep space or be the first to reach the moon, asteroids and now Mars. 

The Obama Administration established aspirations to send humans to Mars by the 2030s, then the Trump Administration pushed for a return to the moon by 2024 while it held power.

For global superpowers such as the United States, China and Russia, space mining has become central to their ambitions to make their mark in space. 

Backing this intention is Tesla co-founder and SpaceX owner Elon Musk, who envisions building 1000 Starships and creating a human civilisation on Mars by 2050. 

However, Musk’s vision has been met by doubters, including Serkan Saydam, the director of research and the mining engineering discipline leader at the School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering and deputy director of Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research of University of New South Wales (UNSW).

“I wish it could happen, but it’s all about the technology development between now and the next 10 years,” Saydam tells Australian Mining.

“If Elon Musk can speed up the process, or other companies offer different technologies, then perhaps he is right.”

The possibility of Mars or moon settlement may potentially come down to autonomous mining capabilities. Its development, or lack thereof, is the reason extra-terrestrial human colonisation or space mining is not yet feasible.

Although autonomous systems have rapidly advanced in the past few years, they are yet to be fully integrated.

“We’ve got autonomous trains, autonomous drills and autonomous trucks, but that’s about it. But once they are integrated, it’ll be the kind of technology that is needed for space mining,” Saydam says.

This is the reason for mining companies’ dependence on human employees and physical work on site, according to Saydam, who says that automating only part of a mine’s systems won’t work. 

He finds a similar lack in confidence in applying advanced technologies in the area of underground mine communications.

“We are using 3G/4G in Australia’s underground mines, not even 5G; when you start using robots and autonomous equipment, you’ll generate big data that requires high-speed data transfer,” Saydam says.

“Therefore, we don’t have the full operating technology available in underground mines yet. How are we going to apply this on the moon or Mars? 

“Systems unsuitability is the reason Tesla cars aren’t allowed to drive themselves in some countries. The equipment can run without a human driver, but the systems process isn’t suitable for its application yet.”

If the technologies were readily available, Saydam says the missing piece lies in their operability. 

The earth’s autonomous systems have to be integrated or advanced enough to be applied in high-risk outer space ventures. 

“We have to send robots to the moon or Mars to prepare the way for humans landing,” Saydam says.

“In moon travel, robots and humans can arrive at the same time because the moon is easier to reach. But for travel to Mars, we can’t risk sending human beings before we do the robots as the travel takes about six to eight months. Moon travel from the earth only takes a couple of days.

“Should the spaceship use up all its fuel upon arrival in Mars, there won’t be any more fuel to come back with; therefore, we need to first send the robots to Mars to make sure that water is extracted and turned to hydrogen, ready for use as rocket fuel.”

The complication with Mars travel extends to the limited time that humans can spend on the planet.

Humans aren’t able to stay on the red planet for more than 20 days, unless they plan to return to earth years later.

“Either they come back to Mars in 20 or so days or wait for four years to return to the earth. This is because Mars will move away from the earth after around 20 days,” Saydam says.

“We need to have enough resources to sustain human lives on Mars for four years in case something goes wrong.”

Although Australia is not a world leader in space exploration, the country is backed by strong mining knowledge and expertise.

Saydam is optimistic that today’s inadequacy in “fully” autonomous mining capability for space mining will one day change.

“Australia is leading the development of autonomous systems in mining globally, so we’re going to get there,” he says. 

“We’re the best miners in the world. We just need to transfer this knowledge to space and do more research, which we are already doing.”

The professor, who is also president of ISRM (International Society of Rock Mechanics) Commission on Planetary Rock Mechanics, says this is why Australia is well-positioned to be a global leader in space mining.

Australia’s position is strengthened by the formation of the Australian Space Agency and the support of the Australian Government, which listed the space sector as a national manufacturing priority at the end of last year.

Saydam believes this will result in increasing momentum towards space mining. And the next thing that will propel progress towards space mining is the creation of a market.

Space launch company, United Launch Alliance, is a pioneer that is offering to pay $US3000 ($3877) for a kilogram of water as it is delivered to space.

Alternatively, they are offering $US500 per kilogram of water if it is delivered to the moon’s surface.

In this case, hydrogen molecules from the water will be separated via electrolysis to become an energy source and replace dying satellite batteries.

“Currently, when a satellite dies it becomes space junk,” Saydam says. “It’s more expensive to bring the satellite back to earth and relaunch it, so companies simply relaunch a new satellite.

“But with this example, you’ve created a business case. You can create the same thing for things such as construction materials, 3D printing and more.”

Gilmour Space Technologies chief executive Adam Gilmour agrees that there is no clear case yet when it comes to profitable space mining other than water.

Gilmour is heading a Queensland-based company that aims to develop launch vehicles capable of taking autonomous mining equipment to the surface of the moon, Mars or asteroids over the next five to eight years. 

“You hear stories about asteroids having platinum worth trillions of dollars, but nobody talked about how expensive it is to get the space mining equipment or technology to the asteroid, moon or Mars, and then to send the mined products back to the earth,” Gilmour tells Australian Mining. 

“It’s an extremely complicated endeavour to mine beyond the earth. I think it’ll be another 30-50 years before we can start to mine anything other than water.”

Pointing at the stark difference between space mining and outer space settlement, Gilmour is optimistic that the latter, a human civilisation in Mars, can be established by 2050.

“Humanity has already demonstrated that we can take semi-mining machines, or machines that are pretty close to mining machines, to the surface and operate them for a period of time because NASA has done that with its rovers,” he says.

“Even before the end of the decade, the first prototypes of mining machines will land on the moon. You’ll see that by 2025 and on Mars by around the end of the decade – it’s entirely possible.”

What’s more, Gilmour says there will be a permanent base on the moon by the 2030s and on Mars by the 2040s.

The opportunities abound, as autonomous mining equipment can be developed within four years given a government order, according to Gilmour. 

This means that the progress made by mining and METS (mining equipment, technology and services) companies so far has not been futile. 

The sentiments of Saydam and Gilmour confirm that moon or Mars travel isn’t just a daydream, nor is advancing autonomous technologies irrelevant to earth-based mining.

“If we can achieve mining in space, we can do it even better on earth,” Saydam says.  

This story also appears in the May issue of  Australian Mining.

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