August 2011

Earth and moon aligned at mining symposium

Interdisciplinary efforts key to outer space ventures

By Graham Lanktree


Neptec’s Juno rover team discusses design prior to their technology demo at the symposium | Courtesy of NORCAT

Far from being worlds apart, the mining and aerospace industries have much to offer each other, said experts from both fields last month at the Planetary and Terrestrial Mining Sciences Symposium (PTMSS) in Ottawa.

Although not an intuitive connection, scientists from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and mining industry innovators such as MDA Corporation and Hatch gathered to bridge the gap, exchanging ideas about new drill, wheel and automated mining technologies, and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) on the moon or Mars.

“There’s a lot of possibility for cross-pollination, since ISRU – the process of producing propellants or oxygen from moon or Mars dirt – is really a space mining activity,” said conference organizer Dale Boucher, director of innovation at the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT). “The mining industry, in turn, can learn a lot about miniaturization, automation and efficiency improvements from the space industry.”

Boucher sees potential for the mining industry to use CSA and NASA project funding as a research arm for the development of new mining technologies with applications here on Earth. “Canadian companies build the drill bits for the drill technologies that NORCAT has been developing through space agency contracts,” he said. “And they’ve improved their product development dramatically because of the stringent parameters we impose.”

With this in mind, the conference promotes a mix between those driving technology development and potential suppliers. “A lot of networking goes on here and that’s really invaluable,” said Rob Mueller, chief of NASA’s surface systems office. “It’s a great place to exchange ideas and publish the work that we do in our labs.”

Visiting from Finland’s Aalto University, researcher Eric Halbach discussed the infrastructure of an automated robotic earthmoving system that could be used on the Earth, the moon or Mars. Delegates also talked about how to optimize the structure of lunar rover wheels and the advantages of bucket wheel excavators.

Beyond the challenges of the sharp and rugged qualities of lunar regolith, one hot topic at the meeting was the need for economic incentives and exploration tax credits from the federal government to get large mining firms interested in the moon’s minerals. “The aerospace industry has suffered in the past few years,” said Bill Larson, a NASA ISRU expert, in an opening address on the conference’s first day. For the better part of this year, NASA has been in limbo as the American government haggled over its budget, settling in April on $240 million in cuts to the agency. The CSA has not fared any better either, with its budget set to drop by 34 per cent in the following two years, after peaking this year at $424.6 million.

“But there is some good news out there,” Larson said. “With these cuts, there are opportunities for the external community to get much more involved in our missions.”

Boucher said now is the perfect time for major players in the mining industry to step up. “I predict that within 10 years somebody is going to come along and say, ‘I need a fuelling depot on the moon,’” he said.

Dealing with and understanding the paradigm of long-term investment and all the steps involved in developing a market are two major strengths that mining firms have ingrained in their DNA. And these companies have the expertise to answer the questions about beneficiating materials like rocks, sand and gravel that the aerospace industry is struggling with.

“Private industry, however, has not yet really bought into the idea of actively mining for profit on the moon or Mars,” Boucher said. Yet space agencies, or commercial spaceflight enterprises, cannot send humans or robots on longer journeys without doing a precursor mission to produce oxygen for fuel or life support.

According to Boucher, the problem is that nobody really understands yet who the end user is going to be. “There’s this concept that this has to happen,” he said. “The question is: When?”

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