February 2009

Canadian mining beyond the final frontier

The human race has big plans for space exploration, and Canada's mining industry may have a big role to play

By M. Paduada

The RESOLVE crusher built by NORCAT and EVC is prepared for testing in the UHH high-bay.


A geoscientist at a Canadian Space Agency operations centre reviews a terrain image and issues a command. The instruction, transmitted via satellite, is received moments later by the rover whose laser-based navigation and vision system generated the terrain data. Despite signal noise and delays characteristic of earth-to-moon communications, the rover maintains contact with the operations centre as it manoeuvres to a drill site.  Compensating for the sloped terrain, it adjusts the all-electric dry drilling unit into a level position. A few hours later, the rover’s chemical plant heats the crushed regolith sample to 900 degrees Celsius while NASA researchers review the data reported by the gas chromatograph.

To some, the idea of the Canadian mining industry playing an instrumental role in the future of space exploration seems like the stuff of Hollywood science fiction. However, the scene just described was actually one of many NASA field test scenarios conducted over a two-week period this past November on a lunar analogue site nearly 2,800 metres above sea level on the dormant Mauna Kea volcano in Hawaii. This, and other NASA field tests, relied on the collaboration of six Canadian companies, two Canadian federal agencies and one Canadian research institute. The reality is that space exploration holds valuable opportunities and crucial roles for this country's mining sector. Sustained space exploration will require a sustained supply of resources, creating some lucrative prospects for the mining industry.

The vision

Taking its direction from the U.S. President’s Vision for Space Exploration unveiled in 2004, NASA has been researching, proving and creating the capabilities and technologies required for sustained human presence on the moon and eventually on Mars. While NASA could be given new directions and goals by the Obama administration, the current objective of sending human missions to the moon by 2020 is not likely to change dramatically. In addition to endorsing that goal, the Obama campaign space policy advocates private sector participation to improve capabilities and commercialization benefits to spur technological innovation. A recent, widely circulated MIT independent report titled “The Future of Human Spaceflight” also highlights the need to firmly establish the science and technology necessary to achieve human space exploration plans for the moon, Mars and beyond.

"We want to change the way we carry out space exploration," said Bill Larson, deputy manager of NASA's In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) program. "In the past — including with Apollo — we took everything we needed into space with us, down to the last ounce. In order to really achieve sustained exploration, you have to be able to live off the land."

The land that space explorers will need to live off will initially be the moon, or even possibly Mars. ISRU is based on the concept of using resources natively available in space to reduce the amount of materials that need to be launched and transported from the earth.

The field tests

The Mauna Kea site was chosen as the location for the field tests because it features fine volcanic dust and terrain somewhat similar to the lunar regolith that might be found near a crater in the moon’s south pole. (It is speculated that such permanently shadowed craters may contain water in the form of ice.) The site is run by the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), an international research and education centre dedicated to developing technologies to sustain life on the moon and beyond. The field demonstrations were intended to test and evaluate RESOLVE and OPTIMA — two projects focused on recovering oxygen from lunar soil.

Larson explained why it may be better to produce oxygen in space when it is so abundant on earth. "We're learning to make oxygen out of soil. An outpost with four people in it would require a metric ton of oxygen a year. Even when we close the life support loop and recycle the carbon dioxide to retrieve oxygen, there are still losses in the system. And, it takes a large sum of money, with a lot of zeroes, to send that amount of oxygen into space."

Oxygen has many other potential uses in an outpost setting, such as for producing drinking water or as energy storage in fuel cells. However, as Larson pointed out, the single largest use of oxygen is in propulsion. "A necessary, yet massive, component in rocket propulsion is the oxidizer, and thereby, oxygen,” he explained. “Eighty per cent of the launch vehicle's mass at lift-off is oxygen. If we can start refuelling in space, the rocket gets smaller and the costs go down."

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