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The Intelligent guide to: mining in space

The Earth and moon from space. Image: Pixabay

The Earth and moon from space. Image: Pixabay

It sounds like something from science fiction (I’m humming the sound track to War of the Worlds as I write this), but just 50 years after setting foot on the Moon, humans are now preparing to mine it.

What? How? Where?

Speaking at the annual SME conference in Denver, Colorado, in February, Dr George Sowers of the Colorado School of Mines said that the industrial-scale production of rocket propellant based on hydrolysed water molecules extracted from the Moon could be a reality as soon as 2030.

Definitive evidence has been found that water exists in ice form within lunar craters. Extracting this ice, melting it and splitting water molecules into their constituent components (oxygen and hydrogen) and then combusting them back together, creates a very efficient source of rocket fuel.

Why is this important? Because the cost of taking fuel into space from Earth is prohibitively expensive, and in order to make private space travel and exploration cost-effective (a reality), an off-Earth source of low-cost fuel is required.

If you have a few minutes to spare you can watch Sowers talk about this with IITV’s Jon Caldara here.

What would be mined besides water?

The commercial supply of rocket propellant from a base in cislunar orbit will significantly lower the cost of missions to the Moon, as well as the launch of satellites into geosynchronous orbit, and it will also open opportunities for further space exploration.

But water is not the only valuable resource in space. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has created an excellent infographic that explains why mining the moon is so attractive. In addition to water, rare earth elements such as Yttrium and Scandium, which are required in electronics production, and also Helium-3 could be extracted from various bodies.

Unlike Earth which is shielded from solar winds by its magnetic field, the Moon has very little protection (see this article by the European Space Agency). These solar winds are rich in Helium-3 – an isotope of Helium – which has, over time, become embedded in the upper regolith (soil) layers of the Moon. If the Helium molecules can be extracted from the soil, they offer a potential source of fuel for nuclear fusion.

In theory, this could provide a clean source of energy for use both on and off Earth. Popular Mechanics explains more here, and Sowers spoke in the IITV interview about how the energy generated could be transferred back for use on Earth.

What’s stopping us?

The availability of cheap, reusable rockets and space craft for one – companies like Space X and United Launch Alliance  are working on this. Logistics is another issue, and also the development of machines suitable to mine the material.

The Swamp Works team which is based out of the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida is working on a machine called RASSOR, which stands for Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot. The lightweight RASSOR is still in the prototype stages but shows great promise. It features a rotating drum on either end that will scoop material from the lunar surface in low-gravity conditions.

NASA is also working on a technique called optical mining which you can read more about here.

The article states that: “Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon within five years, NASA’s lunar exploration plans are based on a two-phase approach: the first is focused on speed – landing on the Moon by 2024 – while the second will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028. We then will use what we learn on the Moon to prepare to send astronauts to Mars.”

The other piece of the puzzle is policy. A number of countries are interested in mining on the Moon (see this article), but there are still questions surrounding ownership of resources and regulation.

Issues in Science and Technology ran a really good article recently exploring all the ins and outs.

How can we learn more?

The Colorado School of Mines now offers the first educational programme focused on space resources. Students can study for a Masters degree, PhD or post-Baccalaureate certificate remotely and, frankly, if I ever get bored of writing, I’ll sign up to the programme myself (planetary geology was my bag as an undergrad).

Mines, as the school is affectionately known, played host to the tenth meeting of the Space Resources Roundtable and the Planetary & Terrestrial Mining Sciences Symposium in June 2019.

There are some fantastic resources on this website, including all of the papers and abstracts presented.

Have you read any good articles on space mining recently? Please share them below, I’d love to find out more

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