June/July 2009

From the mine site to Mars and back

Technical session highlights what the mining and space exploration sectors offer one another

By M. Paduada

Mobility platform on display at CIM’s Mining in Society show

The Mining in Space technical session at the recent CIM Conference and Exhibition held in Toronto served as a landing pad for NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Their mission: to boldly do what no one has done before — establish a permanent outpost on the moon. Recognizing that human expansion has always relied on access to natural resources, the space agencies have been actively exploring mining industry partnerships with the objective of developing the first generation of lunar resource technologies and capabilities. Presenters from CSA, NASA and the mining industry explained the need for mining in space, shared what has been achieved so far (including technology spin-offs), and described how the mining industry can help overcome the challenges that lie ahead.

ISRU key to reducing costs

The idea of space mining — or, in situ resource utilization (ISRU) — is significant because, as Dr. Jackie Quinn of NASA explained, “it’s all about mass and the cost to get there.” The cost to move material to earth orbit is in the order of tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. Moving material to the moon may cost substantially more.

“We look at consumables as our first step,” explained Jerry Sanders of NASA in his presentation. The immense cost of transporting consumables, such as oxygen and water, to the moon can be saved if they can instead be produced on the lunar surface. “If I can make it there, then I can bring more science equipment or rovers,” he went on to say. The ability to recover and produce materials on the moon and on Mars will reduce the cost, freight mass and risks of sustained human activities in space.

Due to such wide-ranging benefits, space agencies have spent the last several years pursuing ISRU technologies. Collaboration is a key part of developing that technology well, according to Sanders. “This is something nobody has ever done in space,” he said. “Even though we’re building the hardware as we speak, there is still a lot to learn. That’s the reason why I’m at this conference. There are hundreds of years of experience in mining here. Even though our hardware looks like toys compared to what I’ve seen at the booths, there are a lot of lessons learned that can go both ways. The bottom line is spin-in and spin-off.”

Technology spin-offs

Technology spin-offs were discussed in the presentation by Jim Richard, president of Electric Vehicle Controllers (EVC). Based in Val Caron, Ontario, EVC specializes in drives for underground battery locomotives. As a mining-related company, EVC has seen how ISRU contracts can lead to technologies with terrestrial applications. Through several space agency contracts, EVC and the Sudbury-based Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) have been involved in the development of drilling technology for potential lunar and Martian use. The all-electric dry drilling technology, which caters to ISRU requirements, has commercial applications on earth in a hydrogeology drill. Also, their drilling technology relies on specialized diamond drill bit designs, developed by Winnipeg-based Dimatech, that have already been adapted for commercial use in the oil and gas industry.

Richard also described spin-off applications from an early prototype of a mobility chassis being developed for ISRU applications. The low-profile, all-electric design is intended to traverse rough terrain and can accommodate changeable payloads, such as a plough or drill. The ISRU prototype, which was on display at the NORCAT Mining in Society booth, drew a lot of questions about potential mining applications. “We now consider this to be a production unit,” said Richard. “We were originally supposed to build three under our contract. That grew to five. With the inquiries we’ve had, we’re up to eleven. And that’s not counting what we’ve talked about this week.”

Cross-border collaborations

In addition to direct technology spin-offs, ISRU activities have yielded valuable test data, many lessons about conducting field tests and promising indications that technology collaborations across borders and with multiple organizations constitute the right approach.

Quinn gave an overview of field tests conducted in November on the volcanic terrain of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Her presentation included an explanation of the hydrogen reduction chemistry for oxygen extraction employed in the two production plant projects and the one prospecting rover project. The excavation, transport, loading and processing mechanisms used for the production plants, and the drilling and crushing mechanisms on the prospecting project bear more similarities to mining technology than they do to traditional aerospace technology. Each project completed several successful tests, yielding valuable information that will improve future designs and bring the technology one step closer to space-readiness.

Michel Doyon of CSA described that mobility data — including performance, traction and power consumption measurements — gathered during the November tests were used in the design of the prototype mobility chassis. In addition to advancing technologies, space agencies gain valuable experience about using the mining-derived technology in the field. Doyon explained further that the CSA is “putting significant effort not only to develop technology, but also to gain operational expertise.” Mining know-how will provide advantages that will help CSA secure a core role in international space exploration activities.

The presenters also made it clear that there are still more connections to the mining industry in the work that lies ahead. CSA-sponsored work on ISRU mobility platforms will rely on vision systems and autonomous operation systems that may have direct applications in mining. Site selection, site verification, geological mapping and site preparation are other activities with potential mining connections. Doyon said that CSA-facilitated collaboration between various industries will “allow us to reduce risk and make smart decisions about CSA’s future participation in space exploration missions.”

NASA also has a long, complementary list of areas for ISRU technology development, and they have some ideas where the mining industry might be able to help. “We’re now looking at size-sorting the lunar material to enable the best reactions and at the same time beneficiate it to concentrate the iron oxide,” said Sanders. In the coming technology development cycles, Sanders foresees mineral processing expertise as another valuable connection.

The ambitions of space exploration may seem large and overwhelming, but there is a wide opportunity for mining-related companies to engage. “Space agencies are funding technology development,” explained Richard. “Small- to medium-sized companies are participating in this development.” Richard attributed EVC’s success in its ISRU technology efforts to the adaptability and quick responsiveness that a lot of smaller companies have. “The technology transfer is occurring, and the smaller companies are the ones that are benefiting,” he said.

Indeed, the collaborative efforts between the space agencies and Canadian mining industry might just hold an important key to longevity and prosperity for all.

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