How Elon Musk’s Starman could help us mine other planets
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Elon Musk’s “Starman” may have overshot its target, but the Telsa founder’s successful SpaceX launch has brought us a step closer to mining in space.
“I think things are going to change very quickly,” says Serkan Saydam, professor with the School of Mining Engineering at the University of New South Wales.
“Previously launching 1kg of materials from earth to space was around $US20,000 ($25,100) plus,” Professor Saydam told Stockhead.
“Elon Musk dropped this to less than $US4000 and he says he will drop it to less than $US100.
“So it’s all about cost — mining is all about cost.”
The payload for Falcon Heavy’s demonstration mission was SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk’s midnight-cherry Tesla Roadster.
Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two, with the ability to lift more than twice the payload of the next vehicle, at one-third the cost.
Transporting bigger equipment into space means increased production.
Mining in space
Mining in space will not be the traditional mining as we know it on earth.
Researchers have not yet found a way to drill out a resource on asteroids or other planets. It won’t be a typical truck-and-shovel operation — and commodities like those found on earth won’t be the initial focus.
Australian researchers are working with NASA to develop a method for estimating a resource in space without drilling.
“In space or on Mars or the moon we won’t have the luxury of drill holes, but we still need to estimate the resource available,” Prof Saydam says.
NASA is planning a mission to Mars in 2032 and the initial focus will be on water-extraction to support life and to be used as fuel.
“If we want to colonise off-Earth we need to extract water and we need to extract regolith to make our homes in space,” Prof Saydam said. “The first mining operation will be water extraction from asteroids or the moon.”
Regolith is a collection of particles of dust, soil and broken rock found on Earth as well as the Moon, Mars, other planets and asteroids.
Asteroid mining within 15 years
The European Space Agency wants to establish a colony on the moon within the next five to 10 years.
Companies like California-based Deep Space Industries and Washington-based Planetary Resources, meanwhile, want to be mining asteroids within the next 10 to 15 years.
But valuable mineral extraction for use in space is probably still at least 20 to 30 years away and bringing back minerals to earth is at least 50 years from realisation, says Prof Saydam.
“It’s going to really affect our supply and demand on Earth if you bring it back,” he says.
Platinum and rare earths may be among the minerals brought back to earth, but more plentiful commodities like copper and gold are likely to remain in space.
“It’s all about creating the market in space instead of affecting the market on earth,” Prof Saydam says.
NASA handpicked researchers from Australia because the country is a global leader in mining research. About 60 per cent of mining related innovations come from Australia.
And while no Australian companies are yet looking at getting involved in the space race, that could soon change with the federal government’s plan to establish the Australian Space Agency by the end of March.
“I think Australia has a big role in off-earth mining, but we need government support for that,” Prof Saydam said.