Plant & Equipment

Quarry off-world as much a ‘leap of faith’ as on terra firma

One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind …

At 02:56:15 co-ordinated universal time on 21 July, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong’s quote made history as he stepped onto the moon.

Humankind recently celebrated the original manned lunar mission’s 50th anniversary – and to this day, hundreds of research laboratories the world over continue to study the moon rocks that the first Apollo mission brought back.

Although resources are abundant on terra firma – and terra australis – it seems mankind is obsessed with space. This fascination is partly motivated by science – ie to find traces of life on Mars, to learn more about our planet’s origins, and to challenge humans’ ability to live, evolve and thrive off-world.

Our attraction is also motivated by profit – the moon, Mars and asteroids could be the “goldfields” of the 22nd century. Companies like Caterpillar and Sandvik are interested in the commercial possibilities of off-world mining, and certainly samples from the lunar surface contain minerals familiar to Earth, eg basalt, breccia, silica, alumina and lime – some typical quarry products! Similarly, asteroids may have minerals such as platinum, nickel, and cobalt. Mankind’s expansion historically, geographically and politically has been fuelled by mining booms.

{{quote-A:R-W:175-Q:"If we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we approve a new quarry in less than five years?"}}So what does this fascination mean for the extractive industry? The modern quarry professional is well within reason to quip: “If we can send a man to the moon, why can’t we approve a new quarry in less than five years?” Certainly, let’s hope now and into the future access to new sites will be easier but there is scope for working (and inactive) quarries to support off-world exploration.

Indeed, we’ve reported in Quarry over the years that some sites have been test beds. In 2016, a drill designed for the Martian polar caps was trialled in a Californian gypsum quarry. In 2012, the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering published research on how a lunar soil simulant could power a moon colony. The theory was demonstrated with reject basaltic powder from a NSW Central Coast site.

The UNSW’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) is now lobbying for a multi-university/ agency/industry team to investigate lunar mining. ACSER’s director Andrew Dempster has said “Australia has a natural advantage for off-Earth mining”, referring to many technological innovations such as automated crushing and screening circuits, driverless vehicles, GPS and drones.

Like ACSER, the CSIRO in the past year has announced a space roadmap that proposes opportunities for Australian industry. Amongst its goals is the application of in-situ resource extraction and utilisation – via semi-autonomous 3D printers and “human-in-the-loop excavation systems” that could extract and process the silica-rich lunar soil into building structures.

These opportunities are underpinned by guesswork. The mining practices are familiar – prospecting, extracting, processing, transportation – but the implementation in a vacuum and microgravity may not be trouble-free. Nonetheless, with the evolution of technology, there may be mutual benefits for quarrying and off-world mining. Just as advances in the extractive sphere today provide a platform for off-world mining, so its spin-offs may in the distant future aid quarrying.

In many ways, as in all business undertakings, the foray into space is a leap of faith – which Armstrong did 50 years ago when he disembarked from the Eagle lunar module. If he and NASA back then weren’t prepared to take science- and business-related risks, would we even be talking about the moon landing today?

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