Asteroid mining: Humans will soon mine outer space
Like Earth, planetary bodies such as the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and comets contain substantial deposits of valuable resources. But setting up any kind of off-Earth mining industry will be no small feat. When you think of off-Earth mining, you might imagine extracting materials from various bodies in space and bringing them back to Earth. If we wanted to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon, as NASA has proposed, we would need to resupply astronauts living there. At the same time, resources are extremely expensive to launch from Earth. It would be difficult to achieve a complete overhaul of how satellites are designed. Even for low-Earth orbit satellites, the energy required to reach them from the Moon is less than that needed to reach them from Earth. When it comes to off-Earth mining opportunities, there are a few resources that are both abundant and valuable. Lunar regolith (rock and soil) contains helium-3, which may become a valuable resource in the future if nuclear fusion becomes viable and widespread. Ice is expected to exist on the Moon’s surface, at permanently shadowed craters near its poles.
My (Michael’s) PhD thesis involved testing how exploration techniques would operate on the Moon and Mars. Some proposals for off-Earth mining are similar to mining on Earth. Bucket-wheel excavators are large machines used in surface mining, including coal mining, which allow continuous digging. Other proposals are more unfamiliar – such as using a vacuum-like machine to pull regolith up a tube (which has seen limited use in excavation on Earth). Researchers from the University of New South Wales Sydney and the Australian National University propose using biomining. Our work at UNSW’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research involves finding ways to reduce risks in a space resources industry. The same launch costs that have so many eager to begin off-Earth mining also mean getting mining equipment to space is expensive. Moreover, the further something is from Earth, the longer it takes to reach. Off-Earth mining would need to be mostly automated, or remotely controlled, given the additional challenges of sending humans to space – such as needing life support, avoiding radiation, and extra launch costs. However, even mining systems on Earth aren’t fully automated yet.
While spacecraft have landed on asteroids several times and even retrieved samples – which were returned to Woomera in South Australia, during the 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 famously tumbled into a ditch during a failed landing attempt. The European Space Agency’s Philae lander, which accompanied the Rosetta spacecraft, bounced back twice before settling in an awkward position inside a ditch. Although collecting resources in space might mean not having to launch them from Earth, more launches may inevitably take place as the space economy grows. Then there’s the question of whether proposed mining techniques will even work in space environments. How these conditions will affect off-Earth operations is still largely unknown. While it’s still early days, a number of companies are currently developing technologies for off-Earth mining, space resource exploration, and for other uses in space. The Canadian Space Mining Corporation is developing infrastructure required to support life in space, including oxygen generators and other machinery. US-based company OffWorld is developing industrial robots for operations on Earth, the Moon, asteroids, and Mars. This article, by Michael Dello-Iacovo, UNSW Sydney and Serkan Saydam, UNSW Sydney, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
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