4 mins read 11 Nov 2019

Australia to boost Off-Earth mining capabilities

Space exploration and mining forum to be held in Sydney will bring together key industries to combine strengths and expertise to develop strategic capabilities in advancing Australia in the emerging field of Off-Earth Mining.

Pallasite meteorite found in the Atacama Desert. Credit Juan Manuel Fluxà

A key number of representatives from industries such as research, law, finance, economics, and the government will join local and international space and mining experts to discuss the strategic ambitions and positioning of Australia in the upcoming Off-Earth Mining boom said to be worth USD$1 Trillion by the year 2030. The forum will be hosted by the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) and the University of NSW’s School of Minerals and energy.

Off-Earth Mining has been flagged as an opportunity to develop Australia’s space and space supply chain resources in both the Australian Space Agency and CSIRO future space roadmaps.

“Australia leads the world in mining methodology and technologies and has deep expertise in many other areas critical to space exploration. Our large landmass and location in the southern hemisphere also gives us a strategic advantage,” said Director of ACSER, UNSW Professor Andrew Dempster

“We need to exploit these strengths and take the lead, or miss out on an enormous opportunity for our country’s future.”

Joining Professor Dempster in speaking at the conference is his co-chair for the event, Professor Serkan Saydam; General Manager of Fugro (a remote robotics manufacturer), Sam Forbes; and co-founder of Space IL, Kfir Damari, who ran the world's first privately funded spacecraft mission to the moon.

What is Off-Earth Mining?

Artist illustration of Moon mining. Credit: ROOM.

The term ‘Off-Earth Mining’ refers to the exploration and exploitation of minerals and resources on objects and bodies outside of Earth and within the solar system. This can include asteroids, comets, moons (such as our Moon) and other planetary bodies like Mars.

The practice was once considered science fiction, but with the advancement of robotics combined with the rapid commercialisation of access to space – that fiction is fast becoming a reality.

In September 2019, a paper detailing a number of different Off-Earth Mining techniques was presented in the journal Science Direct, highlighting ice mining scenarios through an opportunity cost approach.

One key area of interest is the Moon’s south pole – a target location for NASA’s Artemis return to the Moon program. The location is of importance as large volumes of water, frozen within the craters, is available. Made from hydrogen and oxygen, water can be extracted to form fuel and breathing air. This would reduce the costs and challenges associated with going back to the Moon, as fuel and oxygen could be mined rather than transported from Earth (which would increase costs beyond any benefits).

Opportunities for Australia

Given Australia is a world leader in mining, and robotic mining operations the forum aims to bring the knowledge from the resources and energy ministry into the Australian space industry to exploit opportunities as the Off-Earth Mining industry gains global traction.

“If we are serious about Australia sharing the potential benefits of the new space economy and space resources, then we must look at making space ventures commercially viable and environmentally sustainable,” Professor Dempster said.

“Many Australians rely on satellite communications for connectivity; transportation and logistics companies use positioning technologies to track their fleets, and mining and resource industries use satellite imagery for exploration,” Said Professor Saydam.

Professor Dempster said: “We want to bring everyone together to expand the space community, to get everyone talking to each other and focus our efforts, to move the Australian space industry forward.”

There are still a large number of legal, regulatory and technical challenges that present when considering Off-Earth Mining (e.g. how will drill parts behave in the temperature extremities of space whilst exploiting ore). These challenges are being met with innovation and paired with the rapid escalation of both robotics and the commercialisation of space both in Australia and overseas.