Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Just how would we mine on the moon?

Some time ago, I was involved, along with my colleague Colin Farrelly and others, including Apollo 17 Astronaut, Harrison Schmitt, in putting forward some ideas to NASA about how to establish a permanent human presence on the moon.   The ideas here contemplate the challenges of operatiing on the moon, and some of the technologies that need to be developed or adapted to do so.   Because we think that most of the operation's resources need to be locally sourced, there will obviously need to be some 'mining' activity to collect those resources.

What are the Challenges?

For humans to live and work on the moon and further explore the solar system, a sustainable supply of fuel, water, and atmosphere is needed.   The necessary elements (H, O, He, H2O) and other minerals are present in the lunar regolith.  To mine on the moon many new technologies need to be put in place, not least will be the ability to supply fuel and atmosphere components for the operation from lunar materials, and to better understand the near-surface lunar resource potential.

The challenges of mining and processing on the lunar surface are substantial, but many of the enabling technologies are within reach or in use by the international mining industry for terrestrial mining and processing.  Access to lunar resources in vacuum and abrasive dust conditions, with minimal human intervention is possible.  Development or improvement of remote sensing and chemical analysis systems, automation and remote operation of mobile equipment, and self-contained mining units that extract resources in situ will be necessary.

The technology development required encompasses the following.  

The development the required techniques and technologies to map lunar resources in order to plan mining operations.   All component technologies suggested are already in use and include: 

a) mapping and interpretation of the lunar surface using Low Lunar Orbit satellites with passive geo-analytical sensors, 
b) rapid surface evaluation of prospects using automated rovers with active and passive geo-analytical sensors, and 
c) detailed surface evaluation using higher payload rovers to determine mining feasibility.

Development of the required techniques and technologies to exploit and deliver resources.  Although terrestrial analogues exist, considerable technology development is needed to surmount the challenges to reliable operation in lunar conditions including technologies for:

a) in situ mining of the lunar regolith using a self-contained mining unit in lunar conditions with high reliability and minimal human intervention. 
b) extracting regolith volatiles that will require agitation or heating inside the mining unit.  
c) separating the various volatile components from the extracted gas and delivery to depots.

Well understood technologies that will need development or adaptation to the lunar context are:

a) Remote Sensing / Geophysical technologies that are well known by most current mining companies,  
b) Geochemical / Geotechnical Analysis with robotic sampling methods, based on existing systems,
c) Exploration Platforms, both satellite-based and surface roving robots, which are known to NASA programs, and
d) Hardware/Communications Technologies and Advanced Software Systems which are already well developed for unmanned scientific space missions. 

Robotic Mining Equipment is the core of exploiting the resources on the moon.   This is the biggest challenge because of constraints involved with working in vacuum and corrosive dust environments and mechanical and system integration and control.   The University of Wisconsin work on robotic miners can show the way.

The proposed technologies are fundamental to in-situ resource exploitation for lunar fuel and Life Support in support of NASA’s vision of space exploration.  Once implemented, the resources needed for long-term life support on the moon and in space can be achieved. 

The Mark 3 Miner. after Gajda, M E, Kulcinski, G L, Santarius, J F, Sviatoslavsky, G I and Sviatoslavsky, I N, 2006, A lunar miner design: With emphasis on the volatile storage system, in Proceedings Tenth Biennial ASCE Aerospace Division International Conference on Engineering, Construction, and Operations in Challenging Environments: Earth and Space 2006 (American Society of Civil Engineers: League City). 

A further reference to look at is Schmitt, Farrelly and Franklin 2008. Mining and the future of space exploration. First International Future Mining Conference Sydney, NSW, 19 - 21 November 2008 91 

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