In a recent announcement at a Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) forum which discussed Australia’s role in the United Nations Moon Treaty, the group outlined steps to put together a multi-university, agency and industry project team to investigate the possibilities of mining on the moon.
“Australia has a natural advantage for off-Earth mining,” Professor Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), said. “We have some of the very best mining research, technology and automation tools in the world, and the largest mining companies.
“While overseas teams have been looking at solving some of the problems behind space mining, our project wants to examine how we could actually get this done, firstly from a practical engineering point of view, but also closing a viable business case.”
Mining for water
In the past three months, there’s been renewed interest in the possibility of mining the moon for water. First, the European Space Agency announced that it plans to start mining for water and oxygen on the moon by 2025. Then, in the United States, a collaborative study was published about commercial exploitation of water from the moon.
Professor Dempster, working with UNSW mining expert Professor Serkan Saydam, hopes to reduce the perceived commercial risk of off-earth mining. The goal is to show that it is possible to create the machinery, mining methods, energy resources and communications required to mine the moon.
The best known commercial application of extracting lunar water is in making rocket fuel. The components of water are hydrogen and oxygen and these can be used to power rockets. Making rocket fuel out of water on the moon could significantly minimise the cost of carrying out space missions. Currently, rockets leaving Earth must carry all the fuel they need, which is enormously expensive. If rockets could refuel in space, they could reach distant locations at a much reduced cost.
“Projects such as this one will help deepen Australia’s expertise in off-earth mining and facilitate the growth of the space industry in Australia,” Mark Hoffman, the UNSW’s Dean of Engineering said.
In the next 20 years, the global space industry is expected to grow to $AUD1 trillion. Professor Dempster believes Australia should become engaged with these possibilities early to ensure it has the capabilities to compete in an increasingly competitive market.
“What we need to do is reduce the perceived risk to potential investors, including large mining companies, in a space mining venture,” he said.
In an article for The Conversation, Dempster wrote: “The ultimate aim of space mining is to exploit asteroids, the most valuable – known as 511 Davida – is estimated to be worth $USD27 quintillion (that’s 27×1018 or 27 million million million dollars). Another estimate puts that value closer to $USD1 trillion, which is still a lot of potential earning.”
But there is still significant commercial risks associated with off-earth mining. The high level processes are familiar, such as prospecting, mining methods, processing, and transportation, but the specifics of doing those things in such challenging conditions – vacuum, microgravity, far from Earth, and so on – are not.
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