Mining and space exploration seem like two fields that couldn’t be further apart. Miners plunge deep into the earth’s crust, while space explorers seek to propel humankind in the opposite direction.
Early champions of space mining were often not taken too seriously. “There was a huge giggle factor,” said Dale Boucher, CEO of Deltion Innovations, a Sudbury-based firm that hopes to supply equipment for space miners.
Boucher spoke with The Northern Miner after meeting with Canadian ministers in Ottawa, where his pitch was simple: Canada, as a world leader in mining capability, should be involved in space mining.
“Space mining is inevitable,” Boucher said, with private firms and public space agencies banking on exploiting space resources — specifically water — to sustain life and produce propellant far more cheaply than hauling it from earth.
The economic case for space mining rests on the fact that travelling through the earth’s atmosphere is expensive. According to NASA, it costs US$10,000 to get 1 kg of material into orbit. Costs balloon when delivering that cargo safely to the moon and beyond.
The International Space Exploration Coordination Group, comprised of 14 major national space agencies, has identified “local resources” as integral to space exploration, citing the potential for simplifying missions and lowering costs, especially for long missions.
Seeing an emerging market, the private sector sprung into action, with a handful of firms vying to extract space resources and set up shop as the first extraterrestrial refuelling station and supply depot.
“Every miner would love to build a mine in the backyard of the facility that’s going to use their product,” Boucher said.
Mining machines for space
Rooted in the Sudbury mining camp and originally a branch of the Norcat innovation hub, Deltion has taken a mining-centric approach to developing space technology.
By focusing on building mining machines for space, rather than adapting space instruments for mining, Boucher says Deltion has set itself apart from the competition.
“There are drills on Mars right now that are science instruments — they only drill down 5 cm and then they’re done,” he said. “Our drill is designed to drill down two metres and pull up a core sample, much like the coring drills they use in the mining industry.”
The lunar environment offers plenty of drilling challenges. It’s tough to keep motors from overheating — despite temperatures around -175°C — because a vacuum acts a perfect insulator, with no air to act as a coolant. And some lubricants and plastics will boil off and redeposit elsewhere, causing malfunction. Moreover ever-present cosmic radiation can wreak havoc on electronics.
With such unique challenges Deltion had to start from scratch, even building its own fabrication and testing equipment.
“Nobody has built this kind of hardware before,” Boucher said.
In July 2015, after 15 years of development, Deltion’s flagship coring drill proved its capabilities in a test chamber at the NASA Glenn Research Centre in Ohio, where testers recreated the moon’s harsh conditions and watched Deltion’s machine extract core from frozen lunar simulant.
No longer a moon shot
High-profile U.S. companies Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries have garnered a lot of attention on their quest to mine near-earth asteroids, but Boucher is convinced the moon is the best place to both extract resources and supply human space activity in the near-term.
In 2009 NASA’s LCROSS satellite impacted the Cabeus crater on the south pole of the moon, lifting a plume of material containing water ice, which may have sat in the crater’s shadowed depths for billions of years. That discovery highlighted the potential for large water resources on the moon.
In the 2020s NASA hopes to launch the Resource Prospector Mission (RPM) to test targets near the moon’s south pole.
Boucher calls it the “first-ever space mining mission” and notes that Deltion’s coring drill is “ready to go,” and if it’s deployed, it will offer Canada a foothold on future human activity in space.
Participating in space mining would promote high-value employment and transfer technology and knowledge from the space industry for the benefit of earth-based mining and beyond.
Boucher points to the Canadarm as an example for how Canada would benefit. Once the robotic arm had a single successful space flight in 1981, NASA stuck with the proven Canadian technology and ordered four more units, plus a big maintenance contract which spanned decades. “The space industry is a lot like the mining industry — they don’t like to take risks,” he said. The deal also paved the way for Canada to send astronauts into space and participate in some fashion in every shuttle mission.
Given Canada’s aptitude for mining, and mining’s central role in future human activity in space, “Canada has a real role to play here,” Boucher said.
Terrestrial and space mining share similar project risks and time horizons, and miners understand supply-logistics chains as well anyone, he said.
“There is a huge knowledge base in mining that has yet to be applied in space exploration,” Boucher said, adding that his NASA contacts are interested in getting a miner’s perspective to inform space solutions.
Rights and regulations
Beyond the technical challenges, a large question remains: Who, if anyone, has the right to exploit resources in space?
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, with 103 signatories, including the U.S. and Canada, prohibits commercial activity in space. The treaty’s first article explicitly states that everything in space is the “province of all mankind,” and “shall be free for exploration and use by all states without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality.” The second article adds that outer space “is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”
Nonetheless, the treaty didn’t stop U.S. President Barack Obama from signing the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law in November 2015. The bill states that any American who recovers any resource in space is entitled to use, hold, sell or transport that resource as they see fit, “in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the U.S.”
Fledgling asteroid miner Planetary Resources applauded the move. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space,” said co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson.
However, the bill’s conflict with the Outer Space Treaty is plain to see.
“My initial reaction was that it’s a breach of international law,” said Cassandra Steer, executive director of the Centre for Research in Air and Space Law at McGill University. “The problem is that you can’t give property rights away that you don’t already have.”
International law also prevents nations from using national laws to circumvent international obligations. “What they’ve done is just wrongful,” Steer said.
Speer suspects that U.S. legislators are fully aware of the international law. “This might be a creative way of forcing … states to come together and negotiate an international regime that would allow for mining to take place, but would have protections around it.”
The momentum towards commercializing space continued in February when Luxembourg’s Deputy Prime Minister Étienne Schneider announced the country is working to become a European hub for space resource industries and is developing a “legal framework that ensures that private operators working in space can be confident about their rights to the resources they extract.”
“The current international legislation was adopted in the sixties, when space mining was mere science fiction,” Schneider said. “Today, these rules prohibit an appropriation of space and celestial bodies, but they do not exclude the appropriation of materials which can be found there.”
Rules to manage space resources could be modelled on our governance of resources in the high seas, Speer said, where the International Seabed Authority regulates activity beyond national jurisdictions.
Canada’s reputation may make it an ideal candidate to help lead any governing body that will oversee space commerce.
“Canadians are seen as the good guys in space,” said Speer, an Australian who worked in Amsterdam before taking her current post in Montreal.
Moreover, Canada is an exemplar when it comes to regulating resource development and creating a market that works, according to Joe Hinzer, president of mining consultancy Watts, Griffis and McOuat.
“Perhaps the Canadian model might be a good basis for designing a system [for space] in the future,” Hinzer said.
The early rules for prospecting and mining in North America were set by the prospectors and miners themselves, Hinzer noted, and the space-faring nations may need to get together and form a regulatory body in the same way. He said a regime to govern space mining should be modelled on the North American system of staking claims and resource regulation. In such a scenario, Canadian expertise would be vital.
From Sudbury to the moon?
Deltion’s drill has proven its capabilities and offers a good chance to get Canadian technology to the moon for the Resource Prospector Mission. But without support from the Canadian Space Agency, the drill may never take flight.
NASA will only fund non-U.S. technology if it is unavailable domestically, and it has been pumping money into U.S. firm Honeybee Robotics, which is catching up to Deltion’s drilling capabilities. “I estimate we’re still about a year ahead of them,” Boucher said.
In an emailed response to The Northern Miner, the CSA said that “at the moment, space mining is not a priority for the CSA, but we follow progress on initiatives in this field.” The agency “is not currently planning or involved in a space mining mission … CSA’s current priorities in space exploration are the International Space Station program, astronomy and planetary science missions.”
Boucher says it’s not too late for Canada to join the Resource Prospector Mission, if Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, would direct the CSA to focus on space mining. “[Bains] must be convinced that space mining is important for Canada, for Canadian industry and for Canadian innovation.”
Boucher would also like to see the government extend flow-through financing for the space mining sector. “That will kick off the whole domino deck.”
In February, Australia, another mining nation, began reviewing its space legislation and regulations. The government is looking to reform the legislation with an eye towards “supporting emerging commercial opportunities” in space.
Canada must move quickly on space mining “to prevent other countries from taking our place,” Boucher warns. “If we wait too long, we will be pushed off the stage.”
Sidebar: Beyond Water
Aspiring asteroid miner Planetary Resources isn’t shy about talking up the potential for platinum group metals in space. “A single platinum-rich, 500-metre wide asteroid contains 174 times the yearly world output of platinum, and 1.5 times the known world reserves of platinum group metals,” the company said. “We’ve been mining asteroids on Earth for centuries.”
The challenge and cost of producing metals in space and hauling them back to Earth is too steep for many traditional mining firms to pay much attention, according to Joe Hinzer, president of mining consultancy Watts, Griffis and McOuat. “For the foreseeable future we’re going to do our traditional metal extraction here,” he said.
But in a world where national space agencies are facing a fiscal squeeze, while the private sector is increasingly active in space, it is possible to offset costs with valuable metals.
“Some of the metals don’t need a lot of volume to have a lot of value,” said mining entrepreneur Rob McEwen. “And if you’re coming back empty already, you can probably fill’er up.
“The moon has been viewed in some ways as a catcher’s mitt for all sorts of special debris and bodies that have landed on it. And some of them are mineralized,” said McEwen, who is an investor in California-based Moon Express, which is trying to win the US$30-million Google Lunar X Prize by landing the first privately-funded spacecraft on the moon in 2017.
Dale Boucher, CEO of Sudbury-based Deltion Innovations, thinks there may be gold in the same parts of the moon where water is suspected: the permanently shadowed areas in craters on the lunar poles.
In 2013 Boucher co-authored an article published in the journal of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics that looks at data collected during NASA’s 2009 LCROSS mission. The results reveal “several spectral emission lines in the UV that are consistent with the presence of platinum, as well as silver and gold,” the article said.
The authors estimate gold concentrations in the “electrostatic placer deposits” are greater than one part per thousand. To put this in perspective, the report notes that a survey of 71 Canadian gold miners indicated their reserves contain less than one part gold per million.
Interestingly, the lunar gold sits at or near surface and in a form that doesn’t require the crushing of hard rocks. “Such rich gold deposits — if they exist — are entirely unprecedented on Earth.”
“Moreover, the gold market — unlike the market for PGMs — is large enough to withstand infusions of hundreds of tonnes of new gold per year without significantly affecting the price of gold,” the authors argued.
“Gold has served to open up several historical frontiers, including California and the Klondike. Given the tantalizing LCROSS results, it is possible that gold could serve as the catalyst that will open up the lunar frontier.”