It’s mining, Jim, but not as we know it


Richard Roberts

Editor in chief

‘What is Elon Musk going to do with 50% of the moon? Or with an asteroid?’

Terrestrial miners’ hesitation to join Earth’s deep sea “gold rush”, let alone book tickets on a SpaceX Starship, speaks to their deep risk aversion. But that didn’t stop them taking up half the seats at this week’s first Off-Earth Mining Forum to be held in Perth.

The biennial event, conceived 10 years ago in Sydney and run by the University of New South Wales space research and minerals engineering departments, has drawn mainly space people in the past.

Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) professor Andrew Dempster and his counterpart in the School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering (MERE), professor Serkan Saydam, believe there’s lots to learn from each other, even if motivations differ. Hence the attempt to get more miners in the same room by running this year’s program behind BHP’s main office in the Western Australian capital.

It worked.

There are imperatives for both industries to attract more innovative people and develop more cutting-edge technology faster. Hitching a ride, initially, in Space Race 2, is seen as particularly beneficial to miners on both fronts.

“The idea is, you look at how to solve a hard problem, like extracting water on the Moon, and along the way, you solve 10 easier problems you can implement immediately in your terrestrial mining business,” Dempster says. He says UNSW is thinking about coming back to Perth for the next forum.

But getting major miners to part with big bucks for space exploration, or to create a space materials arm, seems far-fetched for now, the forum heard.

Juniors, too – those intrepid prospectors and purveyors of grand ideas – are going to find it tough to go hunting asteroid gold or something even more exotic with the present state of interstellar mining laws.

“Of course, as we hear, the technology is moving forward,” said Steven Freeland, a Sydney-based space law expert who has represented Australia on the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) for 15 years.

“Companies are doing great things, but we really are at the beginning stages.

“I can assure you that once we get beyond where we are, once we get to a point where doing something on a tangible basis becomes feasible, that will not happen without an international framework.”

Freeland is co-chairing a COPUOS Working Group on Space Resource tasked with canvassing non-government industries on their space ambitions to work out “what is feasible, what is real, putting away the hype”, and come up with updated guidance for the UN General Assembly on a workable accord on regulated space resource exploitation.

“We have a five-year mandate,” he told the forum.

“We could have actually put a framework together in these five years but many countries didn’t want that. They don’t want that because they want to pursue their own methodologies for a while.”

Longer term, though, “it would be an absolute disaster if we had different groups of countries, and their companies, operating in similar areas … in incredibly hazardous conditions under different sets of rules. Because that is the making of misunderstandings and miscalculations and worse”.

“And the conflict is something we have to avoid,” Freeland said.

“The vast majority of wars on Earth, over the history of humanity, have been about resources.

“Nothing will be perfect. But whatever we decide in the work that I chair has to last not for one or two or three years – because once you get an international arrangement, it doesn’t change – but it has to last the next 30, 40 or 50 years in terms of a governance framework, whatever that looks like.

“We are in a sense regulating for the unknown.

“But there needs to be this multinational approach. Even if you don’t like each other, even if you don’t co-operate with each other, even if you don’t work with each other, you have to be operating under the same song sheet.”

Own songs, own sheet

Ben McKeown, a 30-year veteran of the mining and oil and gas industries whose ACSER PhD research has surveyed the commercial landscape for off-Earth mining under existing treaties and accords, suggested there was an emerging, if not increasing, need for the terrestrial mining community to get more involved in the processes shaping future lunar and space resource exploration and exploitation rules.

The forum heard the lack of a profit motive in past human space endeavours continued to shadow new ones, even as the world’s “soft” space law baton passes uneasily from signatories to the 1979 Moon Agreement to those backing the 2020 Artemis Accords. McKeown and others have been consistently arguing this won’t work for miners and their investors.

“When you start looking into it you realise that there is absolutely no consistency in the space resource community in terms of expectations about returns, and yet this is an absolutely key point in terms of communicating with investors,” said McKeown, who chairs Peru-focused zinc developer Tinka Resources.

“We’ve tried to look into whether Safety Zones in the Artemis Accords would actually be practical as a surface governance mechanism for a lunar ice mining industry.

“The conclusion we came to was that they would not be practical.

“The most obvious reason for this is that it’s very difficult to see how they could grant exclusivity without breaching the [Outer Space Treaty] non-appropriation principle. But there are also other factors such as, how would they facilitate the transition from an exploration phase to an exploitation phase?”

McKeown told the forum Outer Space Treaty treatment of space-resource benefit sharing presented potentially unacceptable economic risks to future projects, while the non-appropriation principle itself seemed to also rule out exclusive resource access and tenure which “is a fundamental basis of value for resource companies”.

“So the first barrier [to off-world mining] is the legal framework. Without that, nothing happens,” McKeown said.

“The second barrier is a solid market and fairly stable pricing, so that people understand what sort of revenue stream they’re going to get.

“Then you start getting into the technology. Is it going to work? What’s the cost?

“And then the geology … You’ve got to find your resource obviously and … if you’re putting $3-or-4-or-5 billion into a lunar ice mine or a regolith mine, you’re going to do a fair bit of appraisal work on that.

“But if those resources are there and they can crack the imaging, the detection, the prospecting technology, then I think that will come.”

Deloitte Space director Geraldine Baca Triveno said while government space agencies, and various consortia, continued to count the cost of exploratory space programs – and India’s successful and cheap lunar south pole landing has probably already shifted this paradigm – others with the wherewithal were already assessing both sides of off-Earth risk-return equations.

“SpaceX started as a rocket company then they expanded to satellites for two reasons. Satellites have a faster return on investment and he [founder and billionaire Elon Musk] created his own demand. Now he’s got payloads that he’s going to carry in his own rockets,” Triveno said.

“So what would be the next scenario for him? The next scenario for him would be space colonisation. And he’s already said that he wants to colonise Mars.

“To colonise Mars you need access to materials in space, so he’s going to look at space mining as a new capability for SpaceX. And to do that he will need to acquire a mining company because that’s what he’s done for all his other interests.

“It’s not an if, it’s a when.

“What is Elon Musk going to do with 50% of the moon? Or with an asteroid?”

Freeland’s observations were interesting. His first wouldn’t bother the Tesla and SpaceX founder.

“It’s not Musk who will colonise Mars,” he said.

“One, that’s completely ludicrous, practically.

“Secondly, it’s completely unlawful.

“And thirdly, ethically … it just won’t be acceptable.

“The Musks of the world are incredible people, [with] incredible technology, but they don’t run the show.

“We are seduced by these guys. The technology they develop is incredible. [SpaceX’s] Starlink has revolutionised things in good and bad ways. The Starship, if it happens, will revolutionise things.

“The private sector is incredibly important in terms of their technological capability. They can do things governments can’t do.

“But when we get to a crunch point, whatever that crunch point is, when it really becomes a tangible thing, the countries will step in.”

Freeland said SpaceX’s provision of Starlink satellite communication services to Ukraine after Russia (illegally) hacked Ukraine’s communication infrastructure was a case in point.

“The US [government] is intervening in that now because it’s getting really sensitive to the point where Russia could legitimately raise an argument, whether they are right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, to say Starlink is actually now an agent of the United States [and] the United States is therefore acting in the war.

“Therefore, I’m justified as an act of self-defence to bomb Washington.

“It’s getting to that point. I know that’s a doomsday scenario, but legally you could make that argument. Whether you’re right or wrong, it doesn’t matter in a sense.

“[So] Musk is an important part but he’s just a small part in a much, much bigger game.”

“There is no Bunnings in space”

Freeland said one thing lawmakers, politicians and private industry chiefs agreed on was that resources were integral to any grand competition.

“When you go to COPUOS for two weeks there is a full agenda of really urgent problems like space debris, space traffic management … large constellations of small satellites,” he said.

“[But] most of the oxygen in that two weeks is [taken up with talk] about space resources. Why?

“The others are problems that need to be fixed. Space resources are perceived by many as an opportunity.”

McKeown said a “scramble for space resources” was fascinating given an effective legal and funding vacuum.

“The strong sense that I got at the Space Resources Roundtable in June in Colorado is that the US now feels it’s in a space race with China,” he said.

SpaceX Starship may introduce new lunar economies of scale

“There seems to be pressure, or there seems to be the desire, to get as many people as possible to sign up to the Artemis Accords and then start using them to inform commercial governance going forward.

“Who knows what the outcome will be?”

Dr Kevin Cannon, assistant geology and geological engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines, which hosted the Space Resources Roundtable, told the forum in Perth: “Right now what I can tell you is that the first mining operations on the Moon are being conceived of, designed, and the hardware is being built and tested essentially 100% by aerospace companies [and] national space agencies with basically no involvement from the terrestrial mining sector.

“So there is an empty seat at that table and it’s waiting to be filled.

“There will likely be customers for liquid oxygen, to be used as rocket propellant, produced from lunar materials, within the next three years. And those customers are not just NASA. There are industry companies who would pay for oxygen from lunar materials.

“Those companies would probably also pay for hydrogen and carbon, mostly in the form of liquid methane. On the Moon that would have to come from water ice at the poles and there’s still a lot of questions about where the ice is and how much there is.

“Looking a little bit further out there are likely customers who would buy simple metals produced from lunar materials, so things like aluminium, silicon and iron, or alloys thereof, within about 10 years. These are all metals that can be produced directly from the regolith using high temperature electrolysis.”

The forum heard from start-ups and scale-ups positioning for lunar (and beyond) service and equipment provision opportunities. Again, the space currently lacks significant terrestrial mining knowledge transfer.

“I can see from my research that NASA and all the start-ups that we have working on this haven’t really grasped the actual complexity of extracting the resource from the ground,” said Tim Pelech, a mining engineer and new UNSW PhD (off-Earth mining research).

“We are looking primarily at ice deposits: ice is quite hard at [such] low temperatures. Harder than concrete. The excavators that they have designed are not going to be capable of actually extracting that without some sort of breakage mechanism.

“The fact that this hasn’t even been really thought about shows me that we do need people who have the experience in resource extraction to help with this challenge.

“Not necessarily the companies – the investment would be handy, yes – but we do need the people.”

Pelech said decades of trial and error on Earth meant miners were uniquely equipped to pass on other vital learnings.

“The process of geological sampling and modelling, for example, requires significant amounts of high-resolution data to be considered valid,” he said.

“Currently, orbital sensor data is the cutting edge of space resource geology, the problem being that very few chemical assays or geotechnical tests are done to prove the results of the remote sensing and provide more detail at depth.

“Another example of where space companies and organisations can learn from the mining industry is in the application of mine planning processes, for example the calculation and usage of cut-off grades and appropriate extraction sequencing to maximise the efficiency and safety of extraction.

“There is a huge focus in the space sector on optimising single pieces of equipment for the very narrow tasks requirements, such as traversing over regolith or picking up a sample. A mining engineer on Earth takes the next step, and optimises the methods of applying this equipment to a broad range of activities in the mining cycle.

“There are significant energy savings when using the right mining techniques in the right situations, something that is highly desired by space companies, but really not considered from this angle.”

Jon Sciortino, an “autonomous systems evangelist” with South Australia-based Nova Systems, said learnings would need to go both ways. The forum heard that language was a real barrier between the mining and space sectors, particularly around project funding.

“I agree that the more business centric approach from mining could certainly be of benefit there,” Sciortino said.

“I think the challenge that you will have is safety, for a start.

“There is also the concept of operational readiness in mining. The challenge that we need to think about is that, yes, it is remote up in the Pilbara or any other mine on the planet, but most of the mines are reasonably accessible.

“With space you’ve got to think about all that stuff differently.

“There is no Bunnings in space.

“If you haven’t got all of the things that you need before you launch you’re in trouble because you’re going to need another launch to bring all the things that you forgot.

“So you have to think about that stuff in advance. And that’s where [the space sector’s] systems engineering is helpful because it helps you see the bigger picture.”

 

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