June/July 2010

Mining the future for immediate solutions

Broad applications for space mining technology

By M. Paduada

Dale Boucher, Chris Hadfield

Dale Boucher (left) shows Chris Hadfield a prototype planetary drill.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield touched down in Sudbury in April to strengthen the connections between terrestrial mining technology and future space missions. It marks ongoing collaborations between the Canadian Space Agency and the Canadian mining industry.

In situ resource utilization (ISRU), the technological capability to obtain resources beyond our atmosphere, has the astronautics industry gravitating towards Canada’s mining centres.

Norcat (Northern Centre for Advanced Technology), a Sudbury-based non-profit organization that supports innovation and commercialization for small- and medium-sized enterprises, has been a leader in creating partnerships across a wide array of sectors to work on ISRU. Norcat invited mining industry representatives to the technology briefing with Hadfield to encourage new partnerships between mining and space. Among those in attendance were Andrew Scott, director of mining information technology and automation at Barrick Gold, Marc Boissonneault, vice-president of Xstrata Nickel’s Greater Sudbury operations, and Charles Graham, director of CAMIRO’s mining division. The briefing included a presentation about Norcat’s work in international field tests conducted earlier this year, as well as a guided tour of equipment in Norcat’s high-security prototype development centre.

“Norcat has done some really interesting, cutting-edge work, not only in supporting the mining industry, but also the future mining industry,” said Hadfield, who has previously served as chief of robotics for the NASA astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center, and is now chief of International Space Station operations.

Resources of interest range from oxygen and propellant manufactured in space for outbound and return trips of spacecraft, to minerals in asteroid ore bodies.

“It sounds sort of crazy, but there are enormous mineral resources beyond our own atmosphere,” Hadfield explained. “Eventually, we will mine them. We just haven’t developed the technology yet. So, who’s going to develop it, and why shouldn’t it be a country like Canada, or an organization like Norcat or a company that it supports? We are leading the world in those areas on earth.”

Even though Hadfield and Norcat have their eyes on the stars, they were grounded enough to discuss how ISRU work is relevant to mining today. Norcat director of innovation Dale Boucher, Hadfield and several of the mining executives discussed applications to current mining issues.

“We believe we can take this kind of capability, shrink it into something small, and fit it in some of the tight enclosures that are required in the mining industry,” said Boucher. “By reducing the size of equipment so that it’s always operating in ore, we could mine a much higher grade and go after resources that are not available today.”

“We need to take care of the mining that’s going on right now and keep profitable,” said Hadfield. “At the same time, I think it is important to look towards the future and the direction we should be going in.”

Hadfield praised Norcat’s contribution to the recent field tests that took place at a temporary site in Hawaii earlier this year. He conducted geological simulations at the site during the field test. The overall deployment, led by the Canadian Space Agency, was an international effort that brought together NASA, the German Aerospace Center and about 20 organizations, including Norcat. Their activities used prototype technologies to simulate resource prospecting, site preparation, resource extraction and site logistics that could be conducted in future tele-operated space missions.

“When we arrive [at an extraterrestrial surface], we need to have the tools that will allow us to make it worthwhile,” explained Hadfield. “That’s what Norcat and the companies that it supports are working on. When we do get there, we’re going to need to set up operations.”

Boucher claimed the field work on the volcanic terrain was a welcome challenge for Norcat. “It was dusty, it was windy, it was hard — it was a screaming success,” he said. “We proved that we could realistically go to a remote environment and generate products such as oxygen or water from the dirt that’s lying on the surface. Using that water, we could produce oxygen, which we used to fire a small rocket engine. And we produced hydrogen to power up a fuel cell that drove an excavator for the mining operations. It was a very successful deployment and we’re very proud of it.”


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