Australia can pick up its game and land a Moon mission



The ‘Stairway to the Moon’ as seen from Western Australia.
Flickr/Gary Tindale, CC BY

Andrew Dempster, UNSW

Now all the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing have died down it’s worth considering where we are with future lunar missions half a century on.

Australia has long played a role in space exploration beyond helping to bring those historic images of the first moonwalk to our television screens back in 1969.

Labor MP Peter Khalil has already called for Australia to be involved in a mission to the Moon, and later to Mars. He is co-chair of the recently reformed Parliamentary Friends of Space, along with the National’s MP Kevin Hogan.




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But there is plenty of interest from others in going to the Moon.

The new Moon race

Only last month, India launched its Chandrayaan 2 mission that’s already orbited the Moon and due to land there on September 7.

China recently landed Chang’e-4 on the far side of the Moon while Israel almost succeeded in landing its Beresheet probe.

NASA has committed to sending people to the Moon again by 2024, and to significant lunar infrastructure such as the lunar Gateway, lunar landers and companies to deliver payloads to the Moon.

There is no doubt the Moon has once more captured the world’s interest. One of the reasons for this is human exploration, and that a Moon presence is now recognised as being essential to any future mission to Mars.

Water on the Moon

Another is the presence of water on the Moon, and the usefulness of water for all sorts of reasons in space.

By the time we hosted the second Off-Earth Mining Forum in 2015, it was clear water was the space resource of most immediate interest.

But the companies that existed at that time were mainly looking to source that water from asteroids. It has only been in the past two years that companies like iSpace have come to the fore, aiming at extracting water from the Moon.

Australia has reacted quite quickly to this evolving environment. Only last month, the first workshop met to establish a Remote Operations Institute in Western Australia to look at operating automated machines at a distance – remote mines and space.

The CSIRO identified nine potential “nation-building” flagship space missions, of which four relate to the Moon. One (disclosure, championed by me) is an orbiter and lander aimed at extracting water, but the other three could all support such a mission. Of those nine, four (including mine) have been selected for further examination at a workshop in mid-August in Brisbane.

Since January, we have been working on the Wilde project, where we have re-focussed our space resources research towards the permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles, where water is highly likely to occur in acceptable concentrations.

We are also looking to reduce the risk of investing in a water extraction venture, including the design of orbiter and lander missions.

Explosion of Aussie interest

These Australian initiatives are all being driven in part by the explosion of the Australian space sector. One symptom of this is the establishment of the Australian Space Agency. The agency’s very existence and its promise have further emboldened space businesses and researchers.

But more than a year after its founding we still await any real missions, or commitment to upstream projects (upstream in space projects means those that are actually in space – those great Australian contributions to Apollo were all on the ground – downstream).

The other important driver for the new space projects mentioned above is that Australia has such a strong mining industry, and that so much mining innovation is created in Australia.




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As disciplines, space and mining have a lot in common: both involve complex engineering systems, work in hostile environments, and human control is increasingly handed over to autonomous robotics. Exploiting resources in space represents a genuine opportunity for Australia to establish a niche around which a sustainable space industry can be built.

So now is a perfect time for Australia to consider a new Moon mission. The industry is growing rapidly and a flagship mission would give it something around which to build.

Our special expertise in resource extraction offers a unique opportunity, which others have only just started to pursue. And a community of companies and researchers has been gathered for the task.

Hopefully it won’t be another 50 years before Australia has its own presence on the Moon.The Conversation

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Australia: well placed to join the Moon mining race … or is it?



File 20190214 1726 alb497.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Moon could be mined for water.
NASA/JPL

Andrew Dempster, UNSW

It’s 50 years since man first stepped on the Moon. Now the focus is on going back to our nearest orbiting neighbour – not to leave footprints, but to mine the place.

Australia has a well-earned reputation as a mining nation. We are home to some of the largest mining companies (such as Vale, Glencore, Rio Tinto, and BHP), some of the best mine automation, and some of the best mining researchers.




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But do we have the drive and determination to be part of any mining exploration of the Moon?

To the Moon

As far as space goes, the Moon is sexy again. Within the past three months:

  • the Chinese landed a rover on the Moon’s far side

  • NASA announced it is partnering with nine companies to deliver payloads to the Moon, consistent with its new push for more Moon missions

  • the Moon Race competition has been announced, looking at entries in four themes: manufacturing, energy, resources, biology

  • the European Space Agency (ESA) announced its interest in mining the Moon for water

  • a US collaborative study was released about commercial exploitation of water from the Moon.

Not to be outdone, there is an Australian angle. We at the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) announced our Wilde mission to extract water from the shaded craters at the Moon’s poles.

Australian interests

The Australian angle is important. With the establishment of Australia’s Space Agency, there is a need for us to try to establish niches in space, and it makes sense to exploit our strengths in mining to do so.

This is consistent with one of the agency’s priorities of:

… developing a strategy to position Australia as an international leader in specialised space capabilities.

As the agency’s chief executive Megan Clark told the subscription newsletter Space and Satellite AU earlier this month:

Rio Tinto is developing autonomous drilling and that’s the sort of thing you will need to do on Mars and on the Moon. While we’re drilling for iron ore in the Pilbara, on the Moon they might be looking for basic resources to survive like soils, water and oxygen.

The CSIRO has also put space resource utilisation into its space road map (which can be downloaded here). At each of the two most recent CSIRO Space 2.0 workshops, the attendees voted space resource utilisation (off-Earth mining) to be the most promising opportunity discussed.

The ultimate aim of space mining is to exploit asteroids, the most valuable – known as 511 Davida – is estimated to be worth US$27 quintillion (that’s or 27×1018 or 27 million million million dollars). Another estimate puts that value closer to US$1 trillion, which is still a lot of potential earning.

Risky business

The opportunities are enormous, but the risks are high too – risks with which mining companies are currently not familiar. The high-level processes are familiar such as exploration (prospecting), mining methods, processing, transportation, but the specifics of doing those things in such challenging conditions – vacuum, microgravity, far from Earth, and so on – are not.

The research we are proposing for the Wilde project aims to start chipping away at reducing those perceived risks, to the point where big miners are more comfortable to invest.

One of the important risks in any mining is the legal framework. Two international treaties apply quite specifically in this case: the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (ratified by 107 countries and signed by a further 23) and the Moon Agreement (or Moon Treaty, ratified by 18 and signed by a further four) of 1979. Australia has ratified both.

When it comes to trying to determine from these treaties whether space mining is allowed, there are two problems.

First, the treaties were drafted at a time when the problems they were trying to avoid were geopolitical. Space activity was considered to be the realm of nation states and they wanted celestial bodies not to be considered property of any nation states.

Second, commercial exploitation of resources is never explicitly mentioned. (A third problem could be that the treaties have never been tested in court.)

This creates a situation in which the interpretation of the treaties can lead to strong support to both sides of the argument. For instance, Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty says:

The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.

This could preclude commercial development.

But the same article also states:

Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

This could enshrine the right to use those same resources.

For all humanity

There are similar disputes about what exactly was meant when other articles in that treaty refer to sovereignty, appropriation, exploration and use.

The Moon Treaty deals with scientific and non-scientific use of space resources. Article 11 states that the Moon and other celestial bodies and their resources are the common heritage of all mankind (a less gender-specific phrase would be “all humanity”), and that the exploitation of resources would be governed by an international regime, not defined in the treaty. It also dictates “an equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources”.




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On the face of it, this may appear to put signatories to this agreement at a disadvantage, by constraining them as to what they can do.

Other global commons such as the high seas, Antarctica and geostationary orbit are well regulated by comparison, and given that the Moon Treaty envisages that “regime” of rules, then it may be time to define that regime, and, as a Treaty signatory with an interest in space resources, Australia has the motivation to lead that discussion.

How that initiative will evolve will depend on various factors, but the next time it gets a public airing, at the Off-Earth Mining Forum in November, we hope to have made significant progress.The Conversation

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How realistic are China’s plans to build a research station on the Moon?


Joshua Chou, University of Technology Sydney

The world is still celebrating the historic landing of China’s Chang’e-4 on the dark side of the moon on January 3. This week, China announced its plans to follow up with three more lunar missions, laying the groundwork for a lunar base.

Colonising the Moon, and beyond, has always being a human aspiration. Technological advancements, and the discovery of a considerable source of water close to the lunar poles, has made this idea even more appealing.

But how close is China to actually achieving this goal?

If we focus on the technology currently available, China could start building a base on the Moon today.




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The first lunar base

The first lunar base would likely be an unmanned facility run by automated robotics – similar to Amazon warehouses – to ensure that the necessary infrastructures and support systems are fully operational before people arrive.

The lunar environment is susceptible to deep vacuum conditions, strong temperature fluctuations and solar radiation, among other conditions hostile to humans. More importantly, we have yet to fully understand the long term impact on the human body of being in space, and on the Moon.

Seeds taken to the Moon by the Chang’e-4 mission have now reportedly sprouted. This is the first time plants have been grown on the Moon, paving the way for a future food farm on the lunar base.

Building a lunar base is no different than building the first oil rig out in the ocean. The logistics of moving construction parts must be considered, feasibility studies must be conducted and, in this case, soil samples must be tested.

China has taken the first step by examining the soil of the lunar surface. This is necessary for building an underground habitat and supporting infrastructure that will shield the base from the harsh surface conditions.

3D printed everything

Of all the possible technologies for building a lunar base, 3D printing offers the most effective strategy. 3D printing on Earth has revolutionised manufacturing productivity and efficiency, reducing both waste and cost.

China’s vision is to develop the capability to 3D print both inside and outside of the lunar base. 3D printers have the potential to make everything from daily items, like drinking cups, to repair parts for the base.

But 3D printing in space is a real challenge. It will require new technologies that can operate in the micro gravity environment of the Moon. 3D printing machines that are able to shape parts in the vacuum of space must be developed.




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New materials are required

We know that Earth materials, such as fibre optics, change properties once they are in space. So materials that are effective on Earth, might not be effective on the Moon.

Whatever the intended use of the 3D printed component, it will have to be resistant to the conditions of lunar environment. So the development of printing material is crucial. Step-by-step, researchers are finding and developing new materials and technologies to address this challenge.

For example, researchers in Germany expect to have the first “ready to use” stainless steel tools to be 3D printed under microgravity in the near future. NASA also demonstrated 3D printing technology in zero gravity showing it is feasible to 3D print in space.

On a larger scale we have seen houses being 3D printed on Earth. In a similar way, the lunar base will likely be built using prefabricated parts in combination with large-scale 3D printing.

Examples of what this might look like can be seen to entries in the 3D printed habitat challenge, which was started by NASA in 2005. The competition seeks to advance 3D printing construction technology needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth, the Moon, Mars and beyond.

NASA’s Habitat Challenge: Team Gamma showing their habitat design.
NASA 3D Printed Habitat Challenge

Living on the Moon

So far, we’ve focused on the technological feasibility of building a lunar base, but we also need to consider the long term effect of lunar living on humans. To date, limited studies have been conducted to examine the the biological impact on human physiology at the cellular level.

We know that the human organs, tissues and cells are highly responsive to gravity, but an understanding of how human cells function and regenerate is currently lacking.

What happens if the astronauts get sick? Will medicine from Earth still work? If astronauts are to live on the Moon, these fundamental questions need to be answered.

In the long term, 3D bioprinting of human organs and tissues will play a crucial role in sustaining lunar missions by allowing for robotic surgeries. Russia recently demonstrated the first 3D bioprinter to function under microgravity.




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To infinity and beyond

Can China build a lunar base? Absolutely. Can human beings survive on the Moon and other planets for the long term? The answer to that is less clear.

What is certain is that China will use the next 10 to 15 years to develop the requisite technical capabilities for conducting manned lunar missions and set the stage for space exploration.The Conversation

Joshua Chou, Senior lecturer, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.