Space: the mining frontier
CSIRO is developing fully autonomous large scale surface and underground mining equipment that has the potential to eventually be used for off Earth mining.
7 March 2013
Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. The idea of mining for valuable minerals in outer space isn’t a new one. It’s been the setting for countless sci-fi stories over the years, usually involving the moon, Mars, the moons of a giant gas plant, or a large mining spaceship that roams the Galaxy capturing asteroids, such as in the TV comedy series Red Dwarf.
The motive behind the off world mining concept is much the same as any on earth, and as history shows, a gold rush can have people risking life and limb in harsh environments in the hope of striking it rich. Recently an off earth mining conference was held in Sydney at the University of New South Wales, which involved experts from across the globe discussing the plausibility and the technology required to go mining in space.
Joining me on the phone is one of the presenters at the conference, CSIRO’s Doctor Matthew Dunbabin, who looked at the use of automation and robot miners. Matthew, I’m a big fan of this sort of thing, and robots are an obvious choice for this kind of dirty work, but firstly just how realistic is the concept of mining in space?
Dr. Dunbabin: It’s becoming even more and more realistic. It’s been studied for quite some time, ever since the first interplanetary explorers taking samples and things like that, so we have done some small scale excavation. But obviously now people are looking at it from a commercial perspective, and the technology is now progressing to a point where we are seeing viable sample return missions, to the point where we can now upscale to make it some form of economical viability.
Glen Paul: Just on that, with the commercialisation, who owns what in space? Can anyone just go to the moon and start digging if they have the means to do so?
Dr. Dunbabin: This is a bit of a contentious issue at the moment, and one good thing at the Off World Mining Forum in Sydney was a presentation by Optus Satellite in the law regarding space and celestial bodies, and there’s a Space Treaty and then there’s a Moon Treaty, and that hasn’t been ratified by all countries, particularly ones that can launch vehicles at the moment. So it’s a bit of a contentious issue as to who owns what. It’s meant to be for the benefit of all mankind, but we’ll wait and see.
Glen Paul: Indeed. So what then will drive countries and companies to invest in off world mining?
Dr. Dunbabin: I think it’s the ability to get some of these elements that are up there, to do it more cost effectively than perhaps we can do it on earth. We know already that there’s minerals up there on some of the asteroids that are 50 times more concentrated than on earth, so if they can make extraction less than 50 times more expensive than it is to do here, then it becomes economically viable, and that will drive companies to pursue that.
Glen Paul: Hmm. And with asteroids being such a harsh environment, obviously there’d have to be room there for robots to be involved in asteroid mining?
Dr. Dunbabin: It’s primarily going to be robotic, and that was part of the flavour of the Off World Mining Forum, was to see where basically everybody in the world is currently in regard to robotic mining. Simply the communication delay to get to these asteroids, or even the moon, can prohibit teleremote operations, so there needs to be some sort of autonomy, and people are working on all different types of platforms, ones for the moon where you have a little bit of gravity, and ones where you have basically zero gravity such as asteroids.
Glen Paul: Absolutely. And a strong theme that comes through with many of these science fiction stories is the robots are seen to go in first and set up habitats for humans, but then are seen to also be able to replicate themselves by digging up the necessary minerals, process them into components, and then build more robots. Is that pure fantasy?
Dr. Dunbabin: No. And there was actually discussion about this at the Forum. There is some very interesting work on the habitat construction, so CSIRO was involved in projects looking at large scale excavation for habitat construction, but there’s other people actually looking at what you’d do with the materials there, (a) to build habitats, and then basically (b) to then build other structures that you can use for the mining, which could be other robots or that type of thing. So it’s quite plausible.
Glen Paul: And just in relation to CSIRO research, what’s being undertaken in regards to automation at the moment?
Dr. Dunbabin: Within CSIRO we have a large group, a couple of Flagships working in the area relating to all things mining and mine automation, and when we say that it also includes a visualisation. Obviously people want to manage this from central facilities, making sure they’re getting the right stuff, monitoring their assets and that type of thing. But in terms of direct robotic mining, CSIRO was actually one of the first to really look at this at a large scale in the early ’90s and ever since, looking at obviously terrestrial above ground and below ground mining automation techniques that we have commercialised to different companies, and we continue to work on.
Glen Paul: So with this progress being made in automation, when do you think off world mining could become possible and economical?
Dr. Dunbabin: As it happens we had a project which was joint with MIT and NASA back in 2006/2007, and the goal of that was to be able to do complete autonomous digging from very remote locations, where you have all these time delays, basically a space simulation scenario, and we were able to demonstrate to a high technology readiness level the ability to do large scale excavation completely robotically. I think we have the base components here to actually do this. Once they can provide launch vehicles capable of launching the necessary equipment up there, it won’t be long before we can actually do robotic mining.
Glen Paul: And have the mining industry themselves actually shown interest? Were they represented at the conference, or was it Scientists just getting together talking of the future of off earth mining?
Dr. Dunbabin: No. There was actually a two-way dialogue here, and it was very exciting. There was obviously the Scientists, the NASAs, and other researchers from around the world, presenting their high level goals, but there was also the mining industry presenting what they currently use, some of the issues that they have, and how we might be able to apply this technology to off world mining.
Part of the issue obviously is that at the moment all the off world excavation, or mining so to speak, is all for scientific discovery. For example the Apollo missions only collected just over 380 kilos of rock; the current Curiosity rover is taking very small samples, grams at a time. So we need to upscale that by six orders of magnitude to create habitats, to extract water, whatever other resources we want from these environments. So intricate knowledge of how we do terrestrial mining is going to be obviously adapted, but also applied up in space.
Glen Paul: Well it’s an exciting future, Matthew. Thank you very much for taking time to discuss it with us today.
Dr. Dunbabin: My Pleasure. Thank you.
Glen Paul: Doctor Matthew Dunbabin. And to find out more about the research, or to follow us on other social media, just visit www.csiro.au.