Mining in space...one day

By Adam Gilmour


5 key takeaways from the 3rd Off Earth Mining Forum 2017. 


As a future launch provider and space geek, I've always been interested in the prospect of mining for resources in space — not so much for its market value or use on Earth, but as a way to enable longer-term and deeper-space human missions. 


While still in its early stages, the idea is gaining traction. Last month's 3rd Off Earth Mining Forum, organised by the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at University of NSW Sydney, featured an A-list of speakers from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries, United Launch Alliance (ULA) and a host of other space companies and academics. 


Topics ranged from space law and commercialisation, to robotics, launch and mining technologies for asteroids/the Moon/Mars. In fact, a lot could be said about space mining; but here - in a nutshell - were my 5 big takeaways:


1. Water, water, everywhere, but...


Forget platinum or gold. The most sought-after commodity in space for the next 5-10 years will be... water. NASA and ESA would need it to sustain their human space missions; and it could be a handy propellant when split it into liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.


The good news is that there are suspected water reserves all over the moon, Mars and nearby asteroids. However, it appears that we don’t have the tools needed to ‘prove’ the amount (or other details like composition, purity, weight) that could reasonably be recovered; at least, not in the usual way on Earth (by drilling). 


Now, I'm by no means an expert in this area, but perhaps other non-drilling techniques need to be discussed and researched for use in space?


2. To market, to market


Though the idea of harvesting rich deposits of rare commodities off Earth isn't all that new, there isn't yet a marketplace for buying and selling such commodities.


To kickstart this, it might make sense for major space players like NASA and ESA to become ‘market makers’ for some of these space-mined commodities -- much like how it is done for financial products today. They could set up fixed price markets for water or propellant in Low Earth Orbit or LEO, in Moon orbit, or on the Moon surface, for forward delivery in X years. So a space company could then, say, buy water at $5,000 per Kg and sell it at $7,000 per Kg, deliverable to 500 Km LEO.


Indeed, there was a lot of discussion about what future customers of in-space mining might demand. I personally don’t see a market developing for basic metals/minerals in the near- to medium-term due to the cost and complexities of bringing those materials down to Earth. However, we could certainly see a market develop in fixed specification products like aluminium trusses and extruded/manufactured pressure vessels (eg for habitat shells). 


The first space trades could be in water, propellant, oxygen, propellant tanks, pressurised vessels for habitats, struts (to hold things together; think ISS), and potentially food and other items needed for life support.


3. But how to get there?


Other than ULA, who did a great presentation on their ACES and XEUS propulsion systems, there wasn't much talk about propulsion (admittedly, my favourite topic).


So how are we going to get those cool robotic miners and prospectors to the moon, Mars, or the asteroids? The delta V required to get to any near-Earth asteroid is about the same as going to a moon or Mars orbit. How are we going to land them on the surface (gently)? How do we bring them back; and will it be to an orbit around the Earth or moon or Mars? From LEO, this entire mission might require a three-stage vehicle, which is like sending another rocket to space.


Indeed, these are just some of the major engineering challenges that will need to be addressed before space mining can (quite literally) take off.


4. Setting up a Moon Village


The ESA spoke about setting up a base on the Moon, which also seemed to the general consensus at the International Astronautical Congress held in Adelaide last week.


To date, however, the duration indicated for most moon missions remain relatively short term at six weeks or less on the surface. I would have hoped that 50 years after the Apollo moon landing, and with 20 years of continual habitation on the ISS, humanity would be looking to establish a permanent base on the moon, and from the next landing onwards. (This morning’s announcement by the US National Space Council, which added their weight to the idea, may change that.)


Given that the Mars missions in mid 2030’s (or earlier if Elon Musk succeeds) are looking at surface stays of at least 18 months, we should be already planning for longer term stays on the moon. With our ability now to send regular supplies to the moon, and the three-day abort time back to Earth, there really is no reason why we couldn’t have a permanent base on the moon within the next 5 years. 


5. Coming together...


Last but not least, there is definite value in coming together to discuss the issues. There were many lessons learnt by participants individually that could (in hindsight) have saved time and effort for the group collectively. 


I heard some contradictory assumptions and technologies, even from the same agency. Other participants might not have great understanding of the current mining industry, often referring to the billion dollar investments in mines (on Earth) as a justification of a large spend in mining off Earth.


On the latter, perhaps a commodity banker could be invited to talk at future forums about what they look at when lending to mining companies; and how small and medium companies are required to hedge a large proportion of their proven reserves before they are funded on capital expenditure. 


To sum up, in light of the recent announcement of a new Australian space agency and spotlight on the industry, in-space mining will likely become a bigger area of interest.


For it to become a reality, however, I believe that we will need to see significantly cheaper propulsion technology, particularly interplanetary propulsion systems; and we will need to develop a viable marketplace for our future space miners to buy/sell their “ore”. 


The future of space is bold and risk taking. We will all need to do great things, and do them in a hurry. The billionaires are in and they aren’t messing around. Neither should we. 


To the stars.

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