To find more of the minerals we need, mining companies are taking things to another level: space.
Space mining is the discovery, extraction and processing of minerals beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. It sounds like science fiction but it could easily become
a reality in your lifetime.
And it’s going to need some STEM-smart people – especially those skilled in precision robotics and data analytics – to create and program fully automated drillers, harvesters and mineral processors for use in space.
Helping us go further
In the short-term, space mining will almost certainly focus on finding things we need
for space exploration. It is much easier and cheaper to launch rockets from the Moon than from Earth, mainly because its gravity is only one sixth of ours. But to build and fuel rockets, we need to find and process raw materials up there too; things like iron, tungsten, titanium and good old H2O. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen and there are two of the most commonly used ingredients of rocket fuel. Space agencies from several nations, including Australia, are already racing to mine water on the Moon.
In the long-term, space-mined resources could also be used to build and maintain human colonies on other planets and moons.
Where are these space minerals?
The Moon has potential resources of helium-3 and water, with evidence of gold, platinum and rare earth metals present but trickier to get to. Although we have mapped some of its surface in detail, so we have a bit of a head start.
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Asteroids are another target, with their water, iron, nickel, cobalt, nitrogen, hydrogen, ammonia and precious metals.
Governments and private businesses are busy investigating what they are made of and estimating their values. Some are loaded with platinum and gold and worth hundreds of trillions of dollars.
Australia in the space race
Space mining companies are being set up all over the world. The UK’s Asteroid Mining Company plans to start space mining operations by 2030, Japan’s ispace is making robotic rovers and American robotics company OffWorld is creating modular robot systems that operate autonomously using AI.
Australia is in the race too, using its globally renowned mining expertise. CSIRO’s space road map includes using space resources and the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (at the University of New South Wales) has launched its ‘Wilde’ Project with a mission to mine water from the Moon, starting with its south pole. – Matthew Brace
This article appears in Careers with STEM: Resources which can be found by flipping over Careers with STEM Engineering 2020.
Author: STEM Contributor
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