8 things you never knew about mining on Mars, the Moon, and even Asteroids

(ORDO NEWS) — Off-Earth mining may once have been science fiction, but now it is a potentially $1 trillion industry that is likely to become vital if humans are serious about colonizing Mars or the Moon.

Sustaining life on other planetary bodies will almost certainly require the use of local resources that currently remain untapped.

UNSW experts – Professor Andrew Dempster and Professor Serkan Saidam, Director and Associate Director of the Australian Center for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) – say that the extraction of such materials in space is fraught with enormous difficulties.

Robotics may be the solution, but even land-based mining systems are not yet fully autonomous, so new technologies need to be developed. In addition, cooperation between companies and governments, as well as between world governments, is vital.

UNSW is a leader in extraterrestrial mining research, and here Prof. Dempster and Prof. Saidam explain why this is so important.

Why is off-Earth mining important?

The traditional answer is that if we are going to populate the Moon or Mars, then we need to use the resources that exist there. The reason is that using local resources is expected to be much cheaper than transporting materials from Earth in rockets.

However, the cost of launches will decline rapidly over time, so the financial viability of extraterrestrial mining needs to be constantly assessed.

What materials are most important for off-Earth mining?

Water is the most important material for a number of reasons.

First, water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis, and the hydrogen can then be used as a fuel.

Water could also be a vital resource for people living on the Moon or Mars to drink, as well as potentially grow food crops.

Another very useful material to use is regolith – the so-called loose deposits of dust and small stones on the surface of planetary bodies.

They can be used as cement material to build shelters for the people living there. It is hypothesized that understanding the characteristics of regolith could help transform lava tubes – hollow voids and caverns on the surface – into hospitable human habitats.

They will provide protection from cosmic and solar radiation and reduce exposure to extreme hot or cold temperatures, just like the cave dwellings at Coober Pedy.

How easy is regolith to use?

The first question to be answered is what are the characteristics of regolith on the Moon and Mars? What is the physics of rocks and how can they be processed?

UNSW has received funding for a project that includes a dirty thermal vacuum chamber that will provide the best conditions in Australia to test the performance of such regolith.

How easy is it to find water and other materials under the surface of the Moon and Mars?

There are still big questions about how much water in the form of ice is under the surface and where exactly it is located.

Therefore, the first task is to analyze where the ice is, in order to then be able to mine it.

Water extraction will create an infrastructure that can then be used to properly explore other mined materials such as minerals and rare earth elements, including yttrium, lanthanum and helium-3.

Depending on economic feasibility, these rare earths could be brought back to Earth, where they are already being used in electric vehicle engines as well as wind turbine generators.

What about mining on asteroids? What are the benefits?

Studies have shown that asteroids are much more concentrated in terms of the minerals they contain.

An analysis of a single asteroid 2 km wide showed that it contains more nickel than the entire Earth, and, according to forecasts, different asteroids can contain various elements in very large quantities.

Small asteroids can also be relatively easy to capture from space and then brought to Earth or sent to Mars or the Moon for mining.

What are the current barriers to off-Earth mining?

Mining on the surface of the Moon or Mars will almost certainly have to be purely robotic, and fully automated mining on Earth is not currently possible, so significant development must be done before this is possible.

One of the solutions could be the remote control of technology, for example, by a person on a lunar base or even on Earth. This type of mining is already taking place at some level in places like the Pilbara in Western Australia.

Transporting large mining equipment into space is also expensive, so smaller equipment is likely to have to be used, which, in turn, must be much more accurate in extracting material.

These small machines must also have more power than what is currently required on Earth to break rocks.

How important is stability?

The environmental impact on the Moon and Mars is just as important as on Earth, and many feel it’s important not to export current “bad” practices to distant places where they are at least not visible.

Research is already underway to help ensure the ethics and sustainability of extraterrestrial mining, especially given the fact that there is currently no body that oversees extraterrestrial exploration.

When can we expect extraterrestrial mining to become a reality?

Just 10 years ago, the concept of off-Earth mining was still brand new, but the pace of growth in research and development has been significant.

Experts believe that extraterrestrial mining and the potential subsequent colonization of the Moon and Mars are indeed real within the next 50 years.

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