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Space Mining: Are We on the Cusp of an Asteroid Rush?

The Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan (CMMP) team spoke with Dr. Michele Faragalli, Manager of Space Exploration and Advanced Technologies at Mission Control Space Services Inc. in Ottawa about the complex reality of space mining.

By the end of the 2020s, an outer space gold rush could be well underway. Fleets of space vehicles, some with humans on board and others operated remotely or by artificial intelligence (AI), could be leaving Earth in search of metals, minerals and more. But, if we compare space exploration today to the Yukon gold rush in the late 1880s, the busiest workers right now are not the space miners, but the engineers, providing fuel, maps and tools to the first robot prospectors.

"The first step won't be looking for titanium, or nickel or other metals in an asteroid; the first step is going to be mining water and ice, splitting the oxygen and hydrogen to make fuel and creating fuel depots on terrestrial satellites for the spacecraft that we will be using to explore," says Dr. Faragalli.

Land rover doing a test run on Earth

Photo Credit: Mission Control Space Services

Faragalli and his colleagues are developing the software to operate and automate the next generation of commercial and government rovers, landers and satellites. He says the most important job right now is building up the infrastructure needed to explore and mine on the Moon, Mars or asteroids.

"To do that, we ultimately need to use resources in place or in situ," says Faragalli. "In situ resource utilization means mining or prospecting for resources such as oxygen and hydrogen to use as propellant in spacecraft, so you don't need to bring all of the fuel you need from Earth. That will help us explore further and longer in space more sustainably."

According to Seattle-based Planetary Resources, one of the earliest deep space exploration companies created, there are 16,000 near-Earth asteroids rich in resources and two trillion tonnes of water available for life support and fuel in space. Understanding which of these asteroids is suitable to establish the first mine in space is one of the big questions to be answered before space mining becomes a reality.

Mining on the Moon, Mars or an asteroid is similar in many ways to developing a mine in a harsh, remote environment here on Earth. Accessing, exploring, mapping and defining the size and value of the resource are challenging, and if an economic deposit is found, the planning and lead time can take years and millions of dollars in upfront capital costs. These challenges, however, are inspiring innovation and driving research and development (R&D) here on Earth.

"For me, it was obvious when I was a kid what I wanted to do," said Faragalli. "I wanted to be an astronaut. It combined curiosity, imagination, science, exploration." Inspired by the movie Apollo 13 and his experience at space camp, Faragalli realized designing rockets or robots, or being a scientist doing science experiments on the International Space Station was "just as cool" as being an astronaut. From a science project on the first Mars rover, Sojourner, in high school to a PhD in mechanical engineering with a specialization in robotics, he has spent 20 years "playing" with rovers.

Land rover doing a test run on Earth

Photo Credit: Mission Control Space Services

"Rovers are used to explore the surface of planets and moons," said Faragalli. "But they sometimes get into trouble, such as navigating during a dust storm or in permanently shadowed lunar craters that are really cold and dark. We are developing software tools that use AI, so the rover learns as it drives and knows what types of terrains are dangerous and where it could get stuck."

The AI algorithms used to help a rover vehicle navigate on the surface of Mars are like those used by a mine mapping robot several kilometres below the surface of the Earth: both need to be able to locate themselves and navigate without access to a global positioning systems (GPS). One solution is to use visual odometry, where the robot takes a sequence of pictures or laser scans and analyzes them to determine and remember its position. Another major issue is detecting hazards and avoiding becoming stuck.

In March 2018, the Mission Control team tested the Autonomous Soil Assessment System (ASAS) they developed to detect unknown hazards. This was undertaken with support from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) at White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico. Hazards such as soft soil can stop a planetary rover in its tracks and compromise an entire mission. Operating in real time, the ASAS would increase the navigation autonomy of rovers in challenging terrain and improve their speed, allowing rovers to safely explore the surface of a planet. (image)

Land rover doing a test run on Earth

Photo Credit: Mission Control Space Services

Many technologies, like the ASAS, developed for space programs have applications here on Earth and vice versa. For example, NASA calls liquid hydrogen "the fuel of choice for space exploration" and on Earth, BMW has announced it will produce a low-volume hydrogen fuel-cell car by 2021. Lightweight materials for vehicle bodies, batteries for energy storage and robots for exploration are other examples of space innovations ripe for Earth applications. Technologies developed by mining companies and geoscience researchers here on Earth, such as drilling and sampling techniques, can be used to benefit the space industry too.

The CSA is supporting research to build a team of terrestrial rovers for future international missions to the Moon, Mars or asteroids and have worked in collaboration with over 40 Canadian companies and universities. As a resource-rich developed nation with a strong R&D sector and an internationally recognized approach to sustainable mining, Canada is well positioned to play a key role in the peaceful and sustainable development of a space exploration and mining industry. Canada is active in the United Nations.

Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) that works to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of space and in the utilization of space science and technology for sustainable economic and social development.

The possibility of space exploration and mining is inspiring millions of students and researchers, and raising billions of dollars in investment, around the world. The question on everyone's lips: when will we build the first hydrogen fuel station on the Moon, dig the first asteroid mine or bring material back to Earth? Faragalli predicts it could be soon.

"Towards the end of the 2030s, which is roughly around the time that many are predicting that there should be people on Mars," said Faragalli, “I think that is when we might realistically see an industry bringing metals back to Earth.”

Stay tuned.

Mission Control Space Services Inc. works closely with the CSA through various funding mechanisms for space technology development and collaborate on projects with academia, including Dr. Chris Skonieczny from Concordia University, as well as with several researchers at the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) at the University of Western Ontario and with companies such as Canadensys Aerospace Corporation. The Mission Control offices are located at the Lead to Win Accelerator on the Carleton University campus, where Dr. Faragalli is an adjunct research professor in aerospace engineering.

Discover more interesting facts about mining and minerals on the Learn About Mining page.