Space: Mining’s final frontier

Centre for Space Resources Colorado School of Mines director Angel Abbud-Madrid.

As the pressure to shift from non-renewable to renewable resources spreads across the industry, the outer space presents an infinite reserve of highly-valued elements. Australian Mining reports.

Automation is not only making waves at earth-bound mines, but is also set to impact extreme extra-terrestrial environments that will potentially open up to the industry.

The concepts of safety, productivity and sustaining costs are premature for the space resources mining field, but increasing automation in the mining industry, as clearly seen in Australia, is directly applicable to what will be needed when mining commences in space.

Such is the forethought of Centre for Space Resources Colorado School of Mines director Angel Abbud-Madrid, who has more than 30 years’ experience in space projects on NASA’s low-gravity facilities, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

“Just like terrestrial resources have been the driving force and the means for humans to explore every corner of our planet and to live off the land in ever more extreme environments, while becoming the main economic engine of our technological society, so resources beyond Earth will enable us to explore further into space, to stay longer in planetary bodies, and to expand our economy outside our planet,” Abbud-Madrid, who will speak at AusIMM’s Mining Geology 2019 conference, says.

“The extremely high cost of human spaceflight makes the development of these automated systems an imperative for any resource extraction plans.”

The space resources field is at an early stage of development, where resource identification, exploration plans and its technology are just starting to take shape.

But there are technological advances the space resources field has seen, the biggest of which includes the rapid development of robotic systems, machine learning, artificial intelligence, materials, electronics, communications and advanced manufacturing.

These technologies are bringing space mining from “science fiction” to “realistic objectives,” according to Abbud-Madrid.

As technological advances in the mining industry will have a tremendous impact both on Earth as in space, certain adjustments need to be made to automated and autonomous systems to conduct mining in space.

For example, the Earth is accustomed to abundant energy, oxygen and water, a large industrial infrastructure and labour force, and has designed systems to operate under the Earth’s gravitational force, atmosphere and temperatures.

“None of these elements are similar in space. The extreme environment is characterised by the lack of a thick atmosphere, gaseous oxygen, liquid water, a fully developed industrial base and a human workforce in planetary bodies,” Abbud-Madrid says.

Space also has low gravity levels and extreme temperature variations, which make the process of space resource extraction and utilisation “a new and challenging task.”

Existing technology systems on Earth will be modified to require less power, mass and volume, and to operate with a much higher level of automation and less direct human involvement, depending on the conditions of the planetary destination.

“Technologies for extracting resources on Earth have been around for hundreds of years. Much of what we have learned in our planet will be surely applied as we start extracting resources in space,” Abbud-Madrid says.

Advanced technologies will have to be developed to work under the challenging environments of space.

Though the first 60 years of space activities have mainly focused on scientific exploration, operations in low Earth orbit (LEO) and communication satellites, the space resources field holds the potential to “radically improve the status quo.”

This will be achieved by lowering transportation costs beyond LEO, expanding operations in cislunar space (a volume within the Moon’s orbit) and providing a sustainable robotic and human presence on the moon.

“Resources in space are practically limitless. These include water, oxygen, many volatile substances, silicon, metals, rare earths, and radioactive elements, as well as intangible resources such as solar energy, low gravity, ultra-high vacuum, and the ability to see our Earth from above,” Abbud-Madrid says.

“But … it is only in the last few years that the use of extra-terrestrial resources for enabling further exploration and potential new commercial activities in space has become apparent and pursued internationally and by the public and private sectors.

“In the long term, one can envision the possibility of importing resources from space.”

These possibilities include beaming solar power from orbit to supply unlimited and constant energy to our planet, bringing metals and other high-value elements such as iron, nickel, platinum group metals, rare earths and Helium-3 to earth.

Abbud-Madrid believes the world will see the first missions to the Moon aimed at quantifying its resources, and demonstration of automated excavation, drilling, extraction, processing and manufacturing technologies on the lunar surface.

The space resources mining field will also advance early design of the equipment needed for an eventual large-scale production of propellants and human consumables.

“Realising the need to start training the first generation of professionals who will be involved in space resource exploration, mining, and production activities, the Colorado School of Mines last year created the first program in the world aimed at educating scientists, engineers, economists, entrepreneurs, and policy analysts in the multidisciplinary field of space resources,” Abbud-Madrid says.

“With less than a year in existence, the program has enrolled 45 students from four continents, 12 countries and a variety of professional backgrounds, demonstrating the widespread interest to start preparing for this new frontier in the mining profession.”

AusIMM’s Mining Geology 2019 conference will be held in Perth on November 25–26. For more information, please visit www.mininggeology.ausimm.com.

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