August 2008

Mining out of this world

Planetary and Terrestrial Mining Science Symposium held at Canadian Space Agency

By A. Gordon


UNAMEEP 1 (UTIAS/NORCAT Autonomous Mobile Excavation and Exploration Platform) commencing an autonomous excavation task during the 2008 PTMSS conference

What in the world — or beyond it — does mining have to do with space exploration? Dale Boucher, chairman of the recent Planetary and Terrestrial Mining Sciences Symposium (PTMSS), is used to hearing this question. Boucher, who is the director of innovation at the Northern Centre for Research and Technology (NORCAT) located in Sudbury, admits that at first glance the connection is non-intuitive. However, the possibility of forging this link and fostering collaboration between the two sectors is exactly what brought experts from the worlds of mining and space exploration together at the symposium.

CIM was a platinum sponsor for the three-day conference, now in its fifth year. For the first time, the PTMSS, which in previous years was held at NORCAT headquarters, took a road trip down the 401 to the Canadian Space Agency, in St. Hubert, Quebec. Delegates included representatives from the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Canadian and U.S. academia and private corporations.

The conference featured a mix of presentations, technical sessions, workshops and technology demonstrations focusing on solid planet science — that is, the science and technologies of exploring the earth, its moon and other planetary bodies for the purpose of study or for assessing resource extraction potential.

Boucher said that his realization of the synergy that exists between mining and space exploration came while attending a NASA conference about eight years ago. “I learned that the space agencies view the moon as a stepping stone to Mars,” explained Boucher. Basically, in an effort to reduce the astronomical costs of transporting fuel, materials and supplies from earth into space, agencies had begun exploring the potential of creating a station on the moon from which they could extract and produce materials that could support missions to Mars.

“When I began talking to people around NASA and CSA, it became readily apparent that what they were talking about was a mining activity,” said Boucher. It occurred to him that the knowledge, expertise and technologies that they postulated would make the dreams of a lunar space station possible were basically those of in situ mining resource utilization. “That’s where I stepped back and said: ‘Wait a minute. It doesn’t make any sense that a bunch of people who are very capable at flying space shuttles and rockets figure out how to re-do mining. Why don’t we get the two industries together and see if we can create some synergies and get a jump on this learning curve?’”

Meanwhile, Boucher is quick to point out that the benefits from this collaboration are certainly reciprocal and that this collaboration has led to many advances in mining technologies as well, including the development of drill bits that are being used specifically for sidewall drilling in the oil and gas industry. “Both industries stand to gain a lot of ground by stepping up to the plate,” said Boucher. In the mean time, they will have another opportunity to explore these synergistic connections at next year’s conference, which will be held in Toronto in June 2009.

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