By Rebecca Todesco, Editor, Mining Magazine

The night sky has long captured the fascination and imagination of countless generations but it seems that for ensuing generations it may also hold the future of the mining industry.

Mining: the word alone conjures up images of mineral-rich earth, drilling deep into the dirt and digging pits of mammoth proportions, but there are some in the Australian resources sector who believe that terrestrial mining might one day share the spotlight with mining of a different sort.

The knowledge that Earth’s offerings are finite and may one day cease altogether has been at the back of the industry’s mind for some time, prompting the search for alternative methods to bolster Australia’s mineral supply.

Deep sea mining is one method that has come into the spotlight in recent years, but it could be that the answers to the mining industry’s future lie not in the depths of the sea, but off earth entirely.

The University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) Professor Andrew Dempster is one individual who thinks that the sky is no longer the limit for Australia’s mining industry.

A Professor with the School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications and Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER), Professor Dempster often collaborates with Professor Serkan Saydam at UNSW’s School of Mineral and Energy Resources Engineering on the topic, with the pair thinking that off-earth mining could play a large role in Australia’s mining industry in the not so distant future.

But those hoping to see astronauts in high-vis and hard hats are going to be sorely disappointed.

“Mining in space, at least initially, will look a lot different to mining on earth,” Professor Dempster said.

“The extreme environment is the biggest differentiator, with space mining needing to operate in low gravity, low pressure, high radiation, extremes of temperature, absence of water, and at a great distance from Earth.

“For those same reasons, it is likely that it will also need to be autonomous, with minimum human interaction.”

Mr Dempster said that the places industry is currently looking at are the moon, Mars, and asteroids, with each presenting a unique combination of extreme environmental factors.

Houston, there could be a problem

As is to be expected, there are a number of distinctive issues and challenges that arise when considering off-earth mining feasibility.

“Off-earth mining is a problem-rich environment, which is great for researchers but less good for investors who are looking for certainty – hence our research focus on risk reduction. The problems are also full-spectrum. An investor needs to know a series of things that at present are unknowns. For example, ‘will I own what I dig up?’”

According to Professor Dempster, there is a slow and measured process underway in the United Nations to try and formulate a legal framework, but that it is bound to be overtaken by events, resulting in a phase where things are progressing in an unregulated fashion. As well as this, some countries have legislation that they say covers the moon, but whether or not these claims can hold up is questionable.

“Business cases are difficult to make as there is uncertainty in almost all aspects of the business, and there is a very large valley of death associated with simultaneously growing both supply and demand; why create a refuelling station when no one needs topping up versus why design a machine that can be refuelled if there is no supply?

“Environmental and ethical issues have yet to be adequately debated – like the recent Navajo Nation objections to flying human remains to the moon. We are yet to have considered enough implications of what is being proposed. All of that still leaves the technical and engineering developments that are required, and these are many.”

Learning of galactic proportions

Professor Dempster said that the mining industry and the space industry have plenty to learn from one another.

“The space and mining industries have a lot in common: they both deal with long time frames and large expenditures, and they have highly structured development methods recognised across their industries. However, those methods are not similar, and communication between the industries is poor, making ‘learning’ from the other more difficult than you might think.”

According to Professor Dempster, areas where both industries have interests include autonomous robotics, semiautonomy in systems with high latency, materials handling, mineral processing, mine/mission planning, system engineering, business case development, social licence, sustainability, and more.

“We try and cover all these bases in our own research,” Professor Dempster said. “

Our work at UNSW has the motivation: reducing the risk perceived by an investor in a space resources venture. The more one pays attention to that aim, the more it becomes obvious that the mindset required may not come from the space industry, which has a number of drawbacks – its history of being driven by large agencies and large prime contractors, often emphasising science for its own sake, and its focus on missions, rather than businesses.”

Cosmic potential of Australia’s mining industry

Professor Dempster said that the Australian mining industry has a lot to offer in the area of space resources and that there are a number of ways that the mining industry can get involved.

“The Australian Space Agency’s Moon to Mars program has funded a lunar rover – recently named Roo-ver – which assists in what the space industry calls In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU), in this case moving regolith (soil) around on the moon.

“Also, Australian Remote Operations in Space and on Earth (AROSE) is a consortium that is focussed on this exact area. It works with stakeholders in the mining industry and informs them of how to contribute to and benefit from space.”

According to Professor Dempster, experts have always argued that Australia needs a niche in space and the country’s history of strength in mining makes space resources an obvious choice of niche. Additionally, the Australian mining sector already has a leadership position globally when it comes to technology, which Professor Dempster said could be jeopardised if Australia fails to participate in space resources.

“The fact that the current Federal Government has decided space is a partisan issue, and pulled funding out of this rapidly-growing sector, is likely to be just a bump in the road. There are several Australian start-ups who are really starting to make their mark and bad policy making seems not to be affecting them. The sector will continue to grow regardless.”

And grow it has, with rapid progress in the last decade. UNSW has hosted the Off-Earth Mining Forum since 2013, providing a platform for experts interested in the topic and bringing together the two industries.

“When we started there was lots of speculation about whether mining would concentrate on asteroids or whether platinum group metals were the way to go but over the years, a strong focus moved to the moon and water and we have now seen India land its rover at the lunar south pole in its Chandrayaan-3 mission, and we have a new lunar launch service, Vulcan Centaur, carrying the first commercial lander to the moon, Astrobotic’s Peregrine.

“These are fantastic technological contributions, but if you were to try and explain to a mining engineer how they fit into the feasibility study process, you couldn’t do it effectively because the work does not fit into how miners expect mines to develop.”

Despite the history of holding the OEMF at UNSW’s campus on the east coast of Australia, the 2023 event took place in Perth.

“We thought it was time we engaged more directly with the mining industry. Happily, over 50 per cent of attendees were from mining companies so in that sense, we feel we succeeded.”

However, even with the high percentage of mining company attendees at the 2023 event, Professor Dempster said that at present the engagement is with enthusiastic mining individuals rather than mining companies.

“There’s still work to be done. The event itself has always attracted high-level speakers who present on very exciting missions such as the Japanese Hyabusa-2 mission to return a sample from an asteroid.

“We also had a keynote from Colorado School of Mines’ Dr Kevin Cannon on regolith mining techniques. There were presentations on Australian missions, automation, and system engineering. Whereas the usual format was more universal, and reporting of progress, this one was quite directed to be of interest mainly to miners.”

According to Mr Dempster, despite the potential of off-earth mining, space mining will not replace terrestrial mining and rather than causing the industry to turn completely to the skies, it will instead complement terrestrial mining opportunities.

“From a miner’s point of view, it’s the value added that makes a space project interesting.

“Terrestrial mining will increasingly take place in remote settings, so many lessons learned from space mining projects can be immediately applied on earth. By trying to solve the hard problem, a series of easier, immediately applicable problems can be solved on the way.”

The next OEMF will be held in Sydney with another Perth event to follow in a year or two.

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