Mining space age beckons

BUSINESS analysts may questions the costs of mining nearby celestial bodies such as asteroids, or even the moon, but these pursuits are not beyond the realm of possibility, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research.
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The moon could be the next mining frontier.

Lou Caruana

Returning to the moon for the purposes of mining will require new technologies and new ways of thinking, and this extends to the conventional business model. 

According to UNSW Associate Professor Serkan Saydam, rare minerals mined on the moon could be economically viable and the development of new technologies to gather this resource could then be adapted for more efficient mining on earth.

Demand for rare earth minerals that are used in a range of technologies  including semi-conductors and applications such as electrics cars are rising sharply, however, their supply is extremely limited.

Yttrium, lanthanum, and samarium are rare-earths minerals are all in abundance on the moon.

“The development of new technologies and processes to achieve such missions will create spin off technologies and processes which we can also use in our terrestial operations,” Saydam said. 

Helium-3, a non-radioactive nuclear fusion fuel, considered by some to be the safe energy source of the future, is also abundant on the moon. 

It is presently available on Earth but costs about $5000 per litre and the energy required for extraction and processing exceeds the energy that can be gained from the fusion reactor.

While each of these minerals alone might not provide a viable return-on-investment their unique distribution on the lunar surface creates the opportunity to "split-the-cost". 

“In other words, if designed properly, many rare-earth minerals and He-3 could be mined with the same equipment, at the same location using the same ‘Earth-to-moon’ shuttle – a commercial vehicle that could ferry materials back down to Earth,” the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research said.

Saydam, as part of a collaborative team from Enterprise Advisory Service and Virginia Tech, has been awarded a grant from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research-Small Business Technology Transfer Scheme. 

This project work will provide NASA with a comprehensive modeling tool to describe the processes of off-Earth mining and materials processing in their geological context and deliver comparative technical and economic results on the optimised operations and technologies.