NASA workshops aim to merge on and off-world exploration

Staff reporter

Space agency joins with Australia’s AROSE, Austmine, to launch tech-discovery missions

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is help NASA speed sustainable colonisation of the Moon, and then Mars, and at the same time play a bigger part in advancing mineral discovery and recovery on Earth. Hurry, time is wasting!

Australia’s Austmine and AROSE (Australian Remote Operations of Space and Earth) this week asked mining equipment, technology and service, or METS, companies to make an initial pitch to join the burgeoning on-and-off world space economy – and potentially boost their science and recruitment capital.

Various estimates put the value of the off-Earth space economy at circa-US$550 billion and climbing.

NASA is a key sponsor.

The US space agency is leaving no stone unturned in its hunt for the state-of-the-art in sub-surface mineral detection and assessment, multi-sensor geological platforms and data fusion methods, and remote simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) autonomous vehicle survey technology.

NASA deputy administrator and former astronaut, Pamela Melroy, saw potential in encouraging closer cooperation and knowledge transfer between terrestrial and off-world industries and believes Australia’s resources sector, in particular, is a hotbed of innovation in areas such as remote operations communication and control. She is credited with supplying the vision that spawned AROSE, which now has energy, mining, space-tech and academia members.

“Hopefully we can collaborate a lot more on speeding up both of our paths,” AROSE director resources and space, Michelle Keegan, said this week.

“We really do see this as a bigger game, both for contributing to the space sector but also to be able to contribute back to Earth ultimately in everything that we do [in mining].”

Keegan joined Austmine CEO Christine Gibbs Stewart and Jonathan Stock, from the US Geological Survey National Innovation Centre and NASA Ames Research Facility in California, on a webcast to promote three specific opportunities for METS companies to climb on board government and industry-backed missions to improve lunar surface exploration.

Austmine, the major representative body in Australia for METS companies, has set up a submissions portal on its Mine Innovate platform.

Would-be participants have a week (April 10 deadline) to make initial submissions and a few weeks after that to prepare for a NASA Ames workshop in San Jose aimed at forming a clearer picture of available technology and what has potential to become an integral part of a new lunar surveying and sub-surface testing tech stack.

The world’s new space race has Moon and possibly Mars resource recovery and use at the core of permanent settlement and expansion plans.

While these plans are seen by some as mission impossible, the same could be said of the Apollo 11 Moon landing more than 50 years ago and the development of reusable orbital rockets in the past decade.

“One of the interesting things that I and maybe some other folks with geology backgrounds noticed when we got to NASA was that folks who were looking for resources there had different concepts of operation than the ones that we learned,” said Stock, currently seconded to NASA Ames from the USGS NIC, which he founded.

NIC’s Moffet Field base in California’s Silicon Valley is not far from the major NASA research centre’s operations.

“The geologic concept of operations to find things is to know as much about the structure in the subsurface and to differentiate rock bodies as much as you can.

“And then it’s guilt by association.

“You find certain geometries that are consistent, or rock ages that are consistent. That’s a time proven concept of operations … that wasn’t the one the NASA folks were thinking about. They hadn’t been exposed to it.”

Stock said underinvestment in subsurface imaging sensors and mobility systems to “drive those sensors around to image the subsurface” was a gap both terrestrial and would-be off-world mineral explorers were looking to close.

“There’s a common denominator technology challenge between the terrestrial drive to image the subsurface and the off-world one,” he said.

The planned meeting in San Jose next month would “introduce the NASA team to a different way of thinking about the problem, as well as a number of the resources that exist already within the METS community”.

“By having that conversation it seemed to us that we would essentially develop a much sounder approach to finding resources off-world than by simply going our own way and not learning from the Australian experience or the experience of other mining exploration communities.

“The workshop is designed to have that conversation happen, to develop three-to-five concepts of operation for, in this case, finding subsurface resources on the Moon.

“That might be zirconium for a particular kind of fibre optic cable, it might be volatiles to resupply fuel for satellites or other lift vehicles, or it might be something we haven’t imagined.

“To sustain human life off-world … we know that we’re going to want to find things [and] we’ll want to measure, because that’s what we do before we build things, and then we’ll want to build.

“Find, measure and build.

“A key component to autonomy working to do those things is to be able to measure your environment.

“Australia has some world leading capabilities in SLAM … and it seems worthwhile that before NASA tries to invent its own version of SLAM [that we] explore what the community in Australia has.

“So this set of workshops represents an opportunity for the geological communities to inform the NASA off-world community about what the state of [best] practice is.”

Keegan said, similarly, “we don’t currently see that there is a standard approach for multi-sensor data fusion [for] the best geologic interpretation possible right now”. While the race for terrestrial competitive advantage in this area was heating up the webinar heard that off-world, data-fusion economy would be mission critical.

“What would it look like if your platform had multiple different geophysical sensors on it and … onboard model generation, and then you start having the datasets talk to each other in real time so you can decide where you want to add additional data density and which models you can or cannot rule out with the sensor arrays that you have on board,” Stock said.

“That’s a really challenging prospect but at the end of it, for off-world, we could actually image the subsurface in a way that’s positive for a particular model.

“On-world one can imagine that it would dramatically reduce the time you’re spending moving data from the field to the lab and then going out and re-surveying … to get the data density you need to rule out particular models.

“It’s a very attractive idea.

“There are folks who are already beginning to take a chew into it.

“We think maybe Australia has chewed a bit more than others.”


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