Humans will soon mine outer space. However, we must meet our key goals to make this happen

Humans will soon mine outer space. However, we must meet our key goals to make this happen ...

planetary structures such as the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and comets have vast amounts of valuable resources. This has caught the attention of both researchers and the industry, with the aim of one day assisting them in establishing a space economy.

It may be difficult to set up any kind of off-Earth mining industry, however. Let''s look at what happened.

In-situ resource utilization

When you think about off-Earth mining, you might imagine storing materials from various structures in space and returning them back to Earth. This is unusually unlikely to be the first commercially viable example.

If we wanted to have a permanent human presence on the Moon, as NASA has suggested, we would need to resupply astronauts living there. Water can only be reused to a degree.

Compared to the previous year, resources are extremely costly to launch from Earth. As of 2018, it cost roughly$2,720to launch one kilogram of material into low Earth orbit via SpaceX''s Falcon 9, and more to launch it higher or onto the Moon. It''s probable materials mined in space will be used in space, to assist save money.

In-situ resource utilisation is required for collecting material on-site. It can range from mining ice to collecting soil to construct structures. NASA is currently contemplating the possibility of constructing structures on the Moon with 3D printing.

Mining in space might also be a way to improve satellite management. Current practice is to de-orbit satellites after 1020 years when they run out of fuel. One ambitious goal of space companies like Orbit Fab is to develop a type of satellite that can be refueled using propellant collected in space.

Even for low-Earth orbit satellites, energy required to reach them from the Moon is less than the necessary to reach them from Earth.

What resources are out there?

There are a few resources that are both abundant and valuable when it comes to off-the-world mining. Some asteroids contain enormous amounts of iron, nickel, gold, and platinum group metals, which may be used for construction and electronics.

helium-3, which might become a valuable asset in the future if nuclear fusion becomes widespread, is found in the lunar regolith (rock and ground). Metalysis, a British company, has developed a technique that can extract oxygen from the lunar regolith.

Ice is expected to exist on the Moons surface at permanently-sealed craters near its poles. We believe it has ice beneath Mars'' surface, asteroids, and comets. This may be used to prolong life, or broken down into oxygen and hydrogen, and as propellant.

How would we mine in space?

My (Michaels) PhD thesis involved demonstrating how exploration techniques would work on the Moon and Mars. Our other work has included economic modelling for ice mining on Mars, and computer modeling on the stability of tunnels on the Moon.

Some ideas for off-Earth mining are similar to mines on Earth. For example, we might mine a lunar regolith with a bucket-wheel excavator, or mine an asteroid using a tunnel boring machine.

Other approaches are more complex, such as equiting a vacuum-like machine to regolith up a tube (which has seen little use in earth excavation).

Biomining is the goal of researchers from the University of New South Wales Sydney and the Australian National University. In this way, bacteria introduced to an asteroid would consume certain minerals and produce a gas, which could then be collected and collected by a microscope.

Huge challenges persist

We are working with the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (UNSW) to determine ways to reduce risks in a space resources industry. It''s almost certainly possible that there are a few technical and economical difficulties.

The same launch costs that have so many people eager to begin off-Earth mining also make getting mining equipment to space extremely expensive. Mining operations must be as light as possible to be cost-effective (or even feasible).

The longer something is from Earth, the longer it takes to reach. There is a delay of up to 40 minutes when sending a command to a Mars rover and discovering if it was successful.

The Moon has only a 2.7-second delay for communications and it may be easier to mine remotely. Near-Earth objects also have orbits similar to Earth, and occasionally pass by Earth at distances comparable to the Moon. They are an ideal choice to mine as they require less energy to reach and return from.

Given the additional difficulties of moving human to space, such as life support, avoiding radiation, and additional launch expenses, off-Earth mining would be typically automated or remotely controlled.

Even mining facilities on Earth aren''t fully automated yet. Before asteroids can be mined, robots will need to improve.

During the Hayabusa 1 and 2 missions, spacecraft have landed on asteroids several times and even found samples that were then returned to Woomera in South Australia. However, our overall success rate for landing on asteroids and comets has been low.

During a failed landing attempt, the Philae lander sent to comet 67P/Churyumov/Gerasimenko famously fell into a ditch.

Environmental issues are also discussed. Mining in space might help reduce the amount of mining required on Earth. Thats if off-Earth mining results in less, rather than more rocket launches, or if the resources are returned to and used on Earth.

While collecting space resources may mean avoiding having to leave them on Earth, more launches may inevitably take place as the space economy grows.

Then there is the question whether proposed mining techniques will be used in space environments. Different planet bodies have different atmospheres (or none), gravity, geology, and electrostatic environments (for example, they may have electrically charged soil due to Sun particles).

The extent to which these conditions will affect off-Earth operations is still unknown.

But work is underway

Despite its early days, a number of enterprises are currently developing techniques for off-Earth mining, space resource exploration, and other applications in space.

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

OffWorld, a US company, is developing industrial robots for operations on Earth, the Moon, asteroids, and Mars. And the Asteroid Mining Corporation is also working to establish a space space market.

This article by Mikael Dello-Iacovo, UNSW Sydney, and Serkan Saydam, UNSW Sydney, is republished under a Creative Commons license.

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