Mining the moon and Mars using autonomous robots is a pathway to prepare the way for future crewed missions, and potentially even human habitation. Australia is at the centre of the world’s most advanced mining industry innovation, and is looking to take to its know-how out of this world. ROBERT HOBSON reports
Earth's closest celestial neighbour has once again stirred the imaginations of human beings as the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing was recently celebrated, and with it the new possibilities of space exploration.
It also takes on a special significance as NASA hopes to return to the lunar surface in 2020, with Australia potentially supporting upcoming missions, says Dave Williams, CSIRO's Digital, National, Facilities and Collections executive director.
Remote and automated mining
Dr Williams says Australia can bring its geoscience and mining expertise to the table – particularly in the area of remote and automated mining – to prepare the way for crewed missions to the moon, and conceivably to other planets in our solar system.
"There are massive logistical issues around humans going to the moon, such as ensuring adequate supply of water, food, radiation proof shelter, medical support and setting up sustainable life systems," he says.
"That's why an un-crewed mission – with robotics used to explore and test feasibility – is an attractive option in the first instance, because it can potentially do some of the work without people."
The Pilbara as a test landscape for the Moon
Dr Williams points to Western Australia as an example, saying a lot of the mining activity in the Pilbara is being managed remotely from Perth, and that a system similar to it could be set up to deliver the requisite tools and equipment ahead of a crewed space mission.
"Australia is looking at this, because I believe we are world leaders in remote mining. It isn't saying we have all the answers, but we are definitely ahead of the curve," Dr Williams says.
"There are logistical support areas where we could be, as a country, a player in the global system, and that's one of the challenges space agencies, including our Australian Space Agency, and CSIRO are looking closely at."
Much of the technology at play in remote 'terrestrial' mining operations can be applied to space despite the added challenge that comes with operating in an extra-terrestrial environment, such as lower gravity.
A Moon base for further interplanetary exploration
The transition point or 'gateway' solution is the one favoured by NASA, and the idea behind it is that before sending any humans back to the moon supplies and equipment could be sent ahead, either to the lunar surface or to an orbiting space station. In the future, it can also provide a springboard onto Mars and into the wider solar system.
Dr Williams says this isn't necessarily a negative factor, explaining: "In terms of using the Moon as a base for further exploration, you can see a clear advantage of a transition point in terms of power to payload mass for launch compared to our Earth. These, of course, need to be part of a balanced decision across all parameters."
"Just as the lunar rover could be driven on the Moon with less power, and an astronaut can jump up and down with less power, materials are also easier to move with less power. In fact, it might actually be a bonus," he says.
"At the same time, the direct approach to the Moon may be beneficial if you want to get heavy lift equipment there, dropping it off with no intention of returning it."
So what role would remote mining systems play in this situation? Not everything can be brought from Earth, as more mass means more energy is required to escape Earth's gravity, in addition to whatever support systems will be needed to keep humans alive on the journey. Just recall the size and the amount of fuel required by the Saturn V rocket to launch the Apollo 11 team into orbit.
Using lunar resources for space missions
To minimise the logistical stress placed on an Earth take-off, one approach would be to take enough to get to the Moon and establish the base, with the lunar minerals and resources then being used to the maximum to replenish supplies and for return journeys.
And this is where Australia's remote mining systems experience could play a significant role, by essentially laying the ground work for the development of these resources and managing them remotely from Earth through surface or satellite based sensors, and robotic systems.
Water may already have been discovered at the poles but new deposits are nevertheless important.
"There are a lot of robotics you need for moon based survival and Australia is good at it. And if you are looking to grow crops on the moon at some stage – which we will inevitably try to – the dry agriculture capability of Australia is good as well. We again are the leaders," Dr Williams says.
What makes these ideas worthy of consideration are the advances in data and sensor analysis, which have given unprecedented levels of detail to geoscientists to better characterise resources, and such technology could be applied in a lunar context to determine particular types of mineralisation containing useful materials.
CSIRO Mineral Resources director, Jonathan Law, describes this as the 'pixel effect'.
"As the resolution of the characterisation tools increase, so does our understanding of the underlying complexity of geological systems and orebodies," Mr Law says.
Logistics of lunar mining different to Earth
Other considerations include establishing a power source for the lunar-based systems and signal latency, particularly if activities like sampling and drilling are to happen.
"In the first instance, drilling on the Moon will be very little different from drilling on the Earth," Dr Williams says.
"The difference is you have to decide where you get your power supply from, and I would imagine most of that would come from solar battery type work, direct solar or direct solar conversion to electricity."
It is hoped that over time the remote lunar systems could become self-sustaining and even take on constructing basic infrastructure and habitats, should a decision be made to have a permanent human presence on the Moon.
Dr Williams is optimistic about human beings exploring the solar system, but cautions the need to play the long rather than the short game.
"I think we in the Australian ecosystem are thinking about the problems and about the opportunities, and we'll continue to do that. Yes, it is not science fiction, but the reality is its still far from realisation," he says.
"People have asked me in the past how space has transformed the way we travel, and I try to explain to them that, in terms of relative change, the introduction of the railway changed travel from 15 to 20km in a day to 40km an hour. At the time, that was a momentus change.
"And when you describe the railways like that – in terms of speed of travel – you can see there is ambition.
"It will take time to realise, but it wouldn't be the first time something had dramatically changed in the world."