Space mining means business

 

I paid a visit to Dr Angel Abbud-Madrid, Director, Centre for Space Resources (http://spaceresources.mines.edu/index.htm), Colorado School of Mines, to talk about mining in space. Dr Abbud-Madrid points out that space mining would be, in many ways, similar to terrestrial mining. Typical terrestrial mining phases – prospection, drilling and excavation, extraction, processing and utilisation – apply to space mining. The Colorado School of Mines began working on space resources in the early days of the space era. At the time, the focus on space resources was mainly connected with the potential uses of technologies developed for space in terrestrial mining activities. The Centre for Space Resources of the Colorado School of Mines as such was set up in the early years of this century. In 2002 the Centre carried out a series of studies on the economic value of space mining. The conclusion was that mining for space resources, particularly water, and making them available for applications in space did make economic sense. Water could be broken down into oxygen and hydrogen to be used as propellants and used to sustain human presence in space as well as for in-space farming.

At the time the idea was to return to the Moon and NASA began looking more closely into and devoting increasing funds to space resources. The Centre participated in NASA funded projects, notably on the design on a lunar excavator. The Centre designed a prototype and concluded that six months of excavation for water on the Moon would result in oxygen availability on the lunar surface for a 6-month period for a small crew. The Centre also worked with Lockheed Martin on a project for the design and operation of an oxygen and water processing plant.

A few years later, the revision of the US space policy put aside the idea of going back to the Moon and some of the momentum of space resources was temporarily lost. However, in the last three years the interest in space resources has bounced back as proved by the emergence of companies like Planetary Resources (http://www.planetaryresources.com/#home-intro) , Deep Space Industries (https://deepspaceindustries.com/), Shakeltonnergy (http://www.shackletonenergy.com/) and Moon Express (http://www.moonexpress.com/). 2015 was a key year for space resources as the US adopted the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 (a subset of the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act) [(US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, Pub L. 114-90, 129 Stat. 704 § 101 (2015)].The 2015 Luxembourg initiative on space resources (http://www.spaceresources.public.lu/en/index.html) also had an inspirational impact on the space resources community.

Dr Abbud-Madrid points out that from a technological standpoint space mining does not pose any unsolvable problems. The real issues are cost and sustainable demand. United Launch Alliance has provided a first response to the question of demand in its Cislunar Space Economy concept (http://www.ulalaunch.com/uploads/docs/Published_Papers/Commercial_Space/2016_Cislunar.pdf)  and setting a target price tag that the company would be willing to pay for propellant obtained from water mined and made available in space. ULA has thus become the first potential client for space resources.

Dr Abbud-Madrid points out that the development of space resources has two different avenues: one is commercial (lunar and asteroids mining) and the other is governmental (mining in Mars). NASA is again active in space resources. There are two missions planned for 2020, the first is the Resource Prospector mission (https://www.nasa.gov/resource-prospector) that will be the first demonstration to obtain water in the Moon. The second will be the Mars 2020 mission (http://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/) that will explore how to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide in Mars’ atmosphere, identify other resources (such as subsurface water) and determine the habitability of Mars for humans. It will be interesting to watch future developments on both fronts.

 

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