International Assembly Gathers To Discuss Lunar Mining Prospect

This year’s Space Resources Round-table included a diverse range of space agencies, companies, startups and academia. For the first time the U.S. Geological Survey made an appearance, increasing the perceived seriousness of the project.

The main topic of the round table was industrialization of the moon and whatever initial steps are required to get things moving. All of these organizations appear to have triangulated upon the importance of harvesting ice water from dark craters at the south pole. More recent research also hints at the possible of water at mid-latitude.

Harvesting water from the moon could provide a source of fuel and life support beyond Earths gravity well. This is important for space colonization as it costs millions of dollars to launch supplies from the surface of Earth. Of course water can be used to drink but beyond that experts suggest we use water from asteroids or the moon for fuel.

Using extremely hot temperatures we can split water (hydrogen dioxide) in to it’s constituent elements hydrogen and oxygen. This is particularly useful because both elements can be used for fuel via combustion whereas oxygen can be utilize on board a spaceship for life support.

This of course, would make plans such as Space-X, and NASAs colonization of Mars a little more realistic. Other projects, like Yuri Milners ambitious voyage to Saturns moon Enceladus or neighboring star system Proxima Centauri could also benefit from cheaper fuel.

In order to encourage expansion of Lunar industry the United Launch Alliance – a co-op between defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin are presently offering $3,000-per-kilogram ($1,360 per lb.) for fuel gathered from the moon.

Besides the ULA their are thousands of government and corporate satellites in orbit that are willing to pay anybody for cheaper fuel. In fact, that is also the motivating force behind a new series of asteroid mining corporations who plan to mine ice water from asteroids instead.

However, as far as mining ice water from the moon is concerned, scientists, and engineers need to first figure out the

  • distribution
  • concentration
  • quantity
  • disposition
  • depth
  • geo-technical properties

and any other vital characteristics of lunar ice before prototyping the necessary harvesting and processing tools required for the job.

This is where the US geological survey comes in

“They bring centuries of experience in terrestrial geology to assessing the value of resources of the moon, Mars and asteroids,” says Abbud-Madrid director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines.

By bringing in the nations most renown geological organization this years Space Resources round-table has gleaned a sense of serious and astute scientific consideration that has hitherto remained unrecognized.

“This is very encouraging, as the USGS collects much of the basic information for Earth-based mineral production planning, though mining companies supplement it quite a bit during their own exploration,” stated Leslie Gertsch, an associate professor in geological engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.

With that being said the USGS is probably the single most important organization that could have beem brought to bear on the future of this Lunar industry. So this meeting in particular serves as a landmark and indicator of how close these missions truly are.

“This crucial government service is based on economic geology — the study of how economically usable mineral deposits form and how they can be identified, a science that would benefit enormously, on Earth, from study of more bodies than just Earth.” says Philip Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida’s Florida Space Institute in Orlando.

This year meeting was underlined by a  sense of economic realism.

“The business analysis by the Colorado School of Mines and the United Launch Alliance looks quite good. It looks even better when we factor in geopolitical concerns, which international, cooperative lunar industry helps to address,”

History has demonstrated that when there is a common goal to strive towards beyond current geographic confines our worlds nations are more likely to co-operate in order to accomplish them.

By Providing incentive in the form of economic expansion beyond our planet conflict over the Earths dwindling natural resources will probably recede in favor of world-wide co-operation, or at the very least – a new space race rather then some kind of world war 3.

“Lunar science becomes far more effective when we depend on the in-situ resources to support the science,” he said. “I think this confluence of interests makes it likely we will see lunar mining in about a decade.”

“When you add up the time needed to characterize and quantify the resources, followed by developing and deploying technologies to mine, it takes about 10 years.”

However, private company Moon Express want to launch their first mission to the moon this year and erect human colonies by 2022. Whereas CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos has announced that his space company Blue Origins will make it to the moon by 2023. If that is indeed the case then you may see private organizations setting up base before this larger initiative begins.

“Instead of starting broad with orbital missions, then later narrowing down to detailed sampling on the surface, I think we need both to begin right now,” he said.

“We don’t know if it is primarily ‘dirty snow,’ or if it is gravel-sized chunks of pure ice mixed into otherwise dry regolith, or something else,” Metzger said.

Both of these possibilities will require different methods for harvesting

“We need to have rovers driving around and drilling on the moon as quickly as possible to resolve this.”

Speaking of Lunar rovers, there are 3 countries that intend to send their own over the next couple years. These nations include China, India and Israel. China in particular will perform a landmark mission by voyaging to the dark side of the moon where they want to begin growing plants and insects – they have already launched the satellite for doing so.

Similar to concentrated solar power – a process called thermal mining would make use of mirrors to melt the ice in Lunar craters.’

Credit: School of Mines/Dreyer, Williams, Sowers

Williams, Chris Dreyer came up with the concept.

Thermal mining utilizes multiple mirrors perched on the edge of a shadowy crater to redirect up to 99 percent of the sunlight towards ice water contained inside. By adjusting mirrors you can vary the output of liquid water and control production rate – which is important when you have a limited storage depot.

Apparently thermal mining is the most efficient, scalable, and sustainable means of harvesting ice water from polar craters. Engineering does not require that many moving parts, making it lighter and relatively cheap to set up.

Water-ice mining could conceivably begin at the polar lunar craters, such as Shackleton Crater, within 10 years, experts say.


Water-ice mining could conceivably begin at the polar lunar craters, such as Shackleton Crater, within 10 years, experts say.

Credit: School of Mines/Dreyer, Williams, Sowers

Gerald Sanders, lead for the In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) System Capability Leadership Team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston

“Attendees thought commercial exploration of the moon is now more likely and real due to NASA’s commercial cargo and crew activities, as well as recently released requests for information and proposals,” he said.

Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines.

Credit: Barbara David

Before we begin setting up operatons on the moon their are legal concerns. The problem is that legislature regarding the industrialization of outer space are vague and sparse to say the least. Whereas their are US laws governing asteroid mining, lunar and planetary ventures are still less acknowledged.

“Who owns the resources, and how do we stop one country from using them to gain extreme military advantage in space?” Metzger said.

“The best way to solve this is to form an international alliance,” Metzger said. Once this alliance is formed, he said, joint mining operations could quickly become viable.

“This approach benefits science, and it’s also mutually beneficial for economic development and for the long-term health of Earth, Metzger said,” making civilization no longer dependent on a single planet for all it needs.”




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