February 2009

Voices

What’s in it for us? The Canadian mining industry’s emerging role in space exploration

By D. Boucher

Water and oxygen are the basic necessities for survival on the moon for any length of time. Apollo missions were limited to 72 hours duration on the moon surface, largely because these essential life support materials were too difficult to transport there. Now, with plans to establish permanent human presence on the moon, including NASA’s proposed outpost at the lunar south pole, it has become necessary to examine ways to provide life support and fuel on a sustainable basis. The main driver is the cost of safely landing anything on the moon — about one hundred thousand dollars per kilogram. The solution is to live off the land through the mining and processing of lunar regolith (soil) — an activity the space jockeys have termed “in situ resource utilization” (ISRU), but which I still call mining.

The production of oxygen from lunar regolith involves the hydrogen reduction of crushed ilmenite, a mineral that ranges from one per cent to 12 per cent by weight in select areas of the lunar surface. But ilmenite is not the only resource of interest. Orbital studies indicate that there is a very good chance that water ice may be present in some locations near the moon’s poles, just centimetres below the surface. Some power system researchers claim that the moon has the only viable source of He3, a product required for the next generation of fusion reactors.

So what is really in all of this for the Canadian mining industry? There is an apparent logical disconnect between space mining and terrestrial mining — at least at first take. Where is the drill blast muck cycle? Why would the metals industry want to spend the money to get to the moon to mine an ore body only to ship it all home again?

What would you do with a million ounces of He3? It really makes little sense until you take into account that the most precious resources right now are water and oxygen. The long-term requirements are real. The supply can only come from the lunar regolith. The ISRU cycle of prospecting, delineation, extraction and processing is really a mining activity. And the customers for these fuel and life support products are NASA, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Mining on the moon will happen — and within the next five to ten years. NORCAT just completed a field test on Mauna Kea with NASA and CSA for mining systems intended for use on the moon. And we will be going back in the next year for more field testing on much more advanced systems as we move towards flight readiness.

Companies with mining know-how and technology that are not risk averse will realize benefits in terms of cash flow, new product development, and the cross-pollination of capabilities and intellectual property back to terrestrial markets.

Examples of this are not hard to come by. NORCAT has been working with Winnipeg-based Dimatec since 2001 to develop drill bits capable of operating in extreme environments (dry drilling at -185º Celsius) for the drill system we have built for NASA and the CSA. In addition to realizing their engineering and production costs, Dimatec has had direct benefits, ranging from validation of construction materials through to new marketable products.

Other examples of beneficial spin-offs include:

  • the evolution of a hydro-geology shallow drill for use in terrestrial studies, now marketed by another partner, Electric Vehicle Controllers Ltd of Val Caron; 
  • a credit-card-sized controller for underground mobile systems, marketed by Xiphos Technologies and EVC; 
  • a laser imaging system for use in petrological studies, marketed by Neptec of Ottawa; 
  • the development of a lunar regolith simulant by NORCAT/EVC in cooperation with Avalon Ventures, for application in machine design using local anorthosite rock and custom processing.

The short answer as to what is in this for the Canadian mining industry is that long duration human space exploration is a new venture for all of us. There is a real role for the mining industry in this adventure. And there is a real need for innovative entrepreneurs with mining sector experience to help guide the activity and provide basic expertise to the effort.


Dale Boucher is director, innovation and development, at NORCAT.

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