Humans have big plans for mining in space, but there are many deterrents

(ORDO NEWS) — Like the Earth, planetary bodies such as the Moon, Mars, asteroids and comets contain significant reserves of valuable resources. This has attracted the attention of both researchers and industrialists, who hope to one day mine them to support the space economy.

However, creating any kind of extraterrestrial mining industry will not be easy. Let’s see what we’re up against.

Using resources in situ

When you think of extraterrestrial mining, you probably imagine extracting materials from various bodies in space and delivering them to Earth. But this is unlikely to be the first commercially viable example.

If we wanted to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon, as NASA suggests, we would need to resupply the astronauts living there. Resources such as water can only be recycled to a certain extent.

At the same time, launching resources from Earth is very expensive. As of 2018, it cost about $2,400 to launch one kilogram of material into low Earth orbit, and even more to launch higher or to the Moon. It is likely that materials mined in space will be used in space to help save on these costs.

Gathering materials needed on site is called “local resource use”. It can include everything from ice mining to collecting soil for building structures. NASA is currently exploring the possibility of constructing buildings on the Moon using 3D printing.

Mining in space could also change satellite management. According to current practice, satellites deorbit after 10-20 years when they run out of fuel. One of the lofty goals of space companies such as Orbit Fab is to develop a type of satellite that can be powered by propellants harvested from space.

Even for satellites in low Earth orbit, the energy needed to deliver them from the Moon is less than to deliver from Earth.

What resources are there?

In terms of off-Earth mining opportunities, there are several resources that are both valuable and rich. Some asteroids contain huge amounts of iron, nickel, gold, and platinum group metals that can be used in construction and electronics.

The lunar regolith (rock and soil) contains helium-3, which could be a valuable resource in the future if nuclear fusion becomes viable and widespread. The British company Metalysis has developed a process that can extract oxygen from lunar regolith.

Ice is expected to exist on the surface of the Moon, in permanently shadowed craters near its poles. We also believe that there is ice under the surface of Mars, asteroids and comets. It can be used to sustain life, or broken down into oxygen and hydrogen and used as fuel.

How will we mine minerals in space?

Some off-Earth mining proposals are similar to Earth mining. For example, we can mine lunar regolith with a bucket excavator or mine an asteroid with a tunneling machine.

Other proposals are more unusual – such as the use of a vacuum machine to draw regolith through a pipe (which has found limited use in terrestrial excavations).

Researchers from the University of Sydney, New South Wales and the Australian National University propose the use of biomining. In this case, the bacteria brought to the asteroid will consume certain minerals and release gas, which can then be collected by the probe.

Enormous Challenges Remain

Work carried out at UNSW’s Australian Center for Space Engineering has focused on finding ways to reduce risks in the space resource industry. Needless to say, there are many technical and economic problems.

The same launch costs that drive many to start off-Earth mining also mean that getting mining equipment into space is expensive. To be cost-effective (or even feasible), mining must be as light as possible.

Moreover, the farther something is from Earth, the longer it takes to deliver. The delay in sending a command to the rover and finding out its success reaches 40 minutes.

On the Moon, communication latency is only 2.7 seconds, and perhaps easier to mine remotely. Near-Earth objects also have Earth-like orbits and occasionally fly past the Earth at distances comparable to the Moon. They are an ideal candidate for mining as they require little energy to reach and return.

Extraterrestrial mining should be largely automated or remotely controlled, given the additional challenges of sending people into space, such as the need for life support, radiation avoidance, and additional launch costs.

However, even mining systems on Earth are not yet fully automated. Before mining on asteroids can begin, robotics must be improved.

Although spacecraft have landed on asteroids several times and even recovered samples – which were returned to Woomeru in South Australia during the Hayabusa 1 and 2 missions – our overall success rate for asteroid and comet landings is low.

In 2014, the Philae lander sent to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko crashed into a ditch during a failed landing attempt.

There are also environmental considerations. Mining in space can help reduce the amount of mining on Earth. But that is if off-Earth mining leads to fewer, not more, rocket launches, or if the resources are brought back to Earth and used there.

While harvesting resources in space may mean not having to launch them from Earth, more launches will inevitably occur as the space economy develops.

In addition, the question arises as to whether the proposed mining methods will work in the space environment. Different planetary bodies have different atmospheres (or lack thereof), gravity, geology, and electrostatic environments (for example, the soil can be electrically charged due to particles from the Sun).

How these conditions will affect extraterrestrial operations is still unknown.

But work in progress

While this is just the beginning, a number of companies are currently developing technologies for off-Earth mining, space resource exploration and other uses of space.

The Canadian Space Mining Corporation is developing the infrastructure necessary to support life in space, including oxygen generators and other equipment.

The American company OffWorld develops industrial robots for work on the Earth, the Moon, asteroids and Mars. And the Asteroid Mining Corporation is also working to create a market for space resources.

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