Aussie Miners on the Moon

Imagine this: Australian miners go prospecting for water on the dark side of the moon.

It sounds like a sci-fi scene from a movie, right?

Hollywood has been indulging in our seemingly unquenchable futuristic fantasies of moon life as long as it has been making movies.

But as stargazers and the rest of the public now know, NASA is scripting its own real-life galactic adventure — a manned moon landing by 2024 with a mission to explore and mine where ice water is found to exist.

The first science fiction story to hit the silver screen was the 1902 French masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon,” based on Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon.
Watch the 14-minute film.

It’s an epic step toward building a manned lunar fueling station, a pitstop for commercial spaceships heading to Mars and other celestial outposts, according to NASA. It will also be a stepping stone in discovering more about the birth of our universe.

Until now, lunar probes have only landed on the near side of the moon, the only side we can see from Earth. (Our planet’s tidal forces slow down the moon’s rotation to the point where we can never see its far side.)  

In a giant leap toward colonising the moon, in January, China was the first ever to land a probe on the treacherous far side.

So, can the much-ballyhooed new Australia Space Agency get a piece of the moon pie too?

Dr. Rebecca Allen, Swinburne Astronomy Productions Manager, and Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing Space Project Coordinator in Melbourne, told New Economy that Australia can play a strong role in mining moon water and other mineral resources.

“Australia’s long mining history has driven a number of innovations that will be useful for space exploration,” Allen said.  

“The process of automated mining — extraction and driving the minerals in one state, controlled in a completely different location (over 384,000km away) is something that will be critical for extraction of materials on the moon,” Allen said.

One idea orbiting last month’s 35th National Space Symposium in the US state of Colorado, is that the lunar liquid could be extracted and converted into fuel for going to Mars and even for mining asteroids,” according to Allen.

Echus Chasma is one of the largest water source regions on Mars. Credit: ESA’s Mars Express, 2008.

Besides it being a critical resource for making rocket fuel to send astronauts to Mars and other parts of the solar system, moon water could be made pure enough to drink, she added.  

Steven Clarke, deputy associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, says the moon’s south pole is where to go prospecting.

“We know the south pole region contains ice and may be rich in other resources based on our observations from orbit, but, otherwise, it’s a completely unexplored world.”

“Overall, with the ASA many are hopeful this is the key to moving the economy from being dependent on resource exports to a space-and-thought-based economy, that has more long-term stability and potential for growth,” Allen said.

“Australia should be able to leverage that and even build launch facilities [on Earth].”

Australia has long been a prominent player in the global mining industry. It contributes about eight percent to the country’s GDP. In the last quarter of 2018, the gross domestic product from mining reached an all-time high of $36,287 million.

ASA head, geologist Dr, Megan Clark has told ABC news.  “We want to see Australian technology and we want to see Australians have access to that sort of a mission,”

Dig this. The Shackleton crater, which is some 19 kilometers in diameter, is in the center, and the south pole is located approximately at 9 o’clock on its rim. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

No doubt it’s a long shot what ASA can offer with a modest payload of $41 million over four years. NASA has an astronomical $21.5 billion budget for this fiscal year alone, as well as international agreements with the long-established European Space Agency, among others.

“We don’t have the money to be able to fund massive $10 billion missions by ourselves, but we do have the capacity to participate in those missions and show what Australia can do,” Clark has explained.  

If the main focus for now is excavating moon water and other mineral resources, Australia has it covered. Many of the largest global mining companies in the world and some of the most advanced mining automation are located right here.

In a test run last year, the Rio Tinto mining company shipped 28,000 tonnes of iron ore autonomously by rail from Pilbara in Western Australia to the Post of Cape Lambert. The 280-kilometer journey was monitored remotely by operators in Perth.

Another industry bigshot, BHP is using a fleet of autonomous drills and trucks in South Flank, in its Western Australia iron ore operation.

Since the dawn of Australia’s Space Agency in July, it’s been considered a rising economic star.  Not only will it be the umbrella for space industry business, but the defense industry, as well.

The dark side of the moon. Credit: NASA Goddard

Early this year, ASA entered into a MoU with the United Arab Emirates supporting academic and research capability, according to the government’s Dept of Industry, Innovation and Science.

Clark’s mission is to triple the domestic space industry to $10 to 12 billion dollars a year by 2030 which could add 10,000 to 20,000 high-paying jobs.

So why is Australia awaking from 50 years of suspended animation now, one of the last developed countries to form a space agency?

That’s because a panel of experts, led by Clark, had concluded that Australia is already a space industry boomtown.   

One hundred and seventy companies and thirty-four research groups are involved in satellite TV, broadband, and communications services, according to a report by a panel of experts, including Clark, in their report, “Review of Australia’s Space Industry Capability.”   

Unifying Australia’s space industry under one roof would attract even more international investment, the panel concluded.

The mining industry alone contributes about eight percent to the GDP. From 2003 to 2014, over $400 billion of resources projects were started in Australia,” the report noted.  

“How do you operate; how could you live there — all of the aspects of living and operating in those really harsh environments … actually Australia has a lot to contribute,” said Clark.  

For one, Australia’s experience combating drought would be invaluable in a hostile lunar environment. “Even the dust is very sharp and corrosive, it’s not like dust on Earth,” Clark has said.

 NASA spokesman Bob Jones told New Economy that Australia is on a long list of potential business partners.  “We have started talks with most of the international space community and look forward to discussions with Australia about how to get involved in moving forward to the Moon and on to Mars and other destinations.

“With the advanced deadline we need to move quickly and assess what our international and commercial partners bring to the table in support this effort. That assessment is currently underway,” he said.

Daytime on one side of the moon lasts about 13 and a half days followed by and 13 and a half nights of darkness. Daylight temperatures can reach 127C. Nights can dip to minus 173 C.

NASA has long relied on Australia for communicating between space and Earth that requires the use of ground stations in remote areas.  The Honeysuckle Creek relay station near Canberra. The Parkes radio telescope, nicknamed the Dish, in NSW, is famous for beaming to the world much of the Apollo missions, it broadcast back to Earth live coverage of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong’s historic two-and-a-half-hour moonwalk in July 1969. It also helped track the crippled, moon-bound Apollo 13 back to Earth in 1971.

If ASA does create its own footprint by mining the moon it will be through automation.  In a test run last year, the Rio Tinto mining company shipped 28,000 tonnes of iron ore autonomously by rail from Pilbara in Western Australia to the Post of Cape Lambert. The 280-kilometer journey was monitored remotely by operators in Perth.

Another industry bigshot, BHP is using a fleet of autonomous drills and trucks in South Flank, in its Western Australia iron ore operation.

Peter Colley National Research Director Mining and Energy Division Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining & Energy Union, is more down to Earth about prospecting in outer space.  

“Moon mining is not something on which we have felt the urgent need to develop policy or even a view,” he said.  

“It’s hard to imagine any mineral being so valuable that it could justify the expense of being mined on the moon.

“And if it were, I expect the process would be so highly automated that there would be next to no jobs involved. The sustaining of human life on the moon is the most expensive part of doing anything on the moon.”

So, who owns Earth’s only satellite?

Nobody.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty states that all countries have a right to peacefully explore any celestial bodies. Most importantly, it bans military activities, storing weapons of mass destruction.   

“Of course, we need to understand what international legal gates may have to be passed through,” said former mining industry lawyer Phil Cohen.  

But is mining the moon environmentally feasible?

“You don’t want to do anything destructive to the moon. The moon is a fraction of the size of the Earth and it may be more vulnerable,” said former mining industry lawyer Phil Cohen.

“What are the environmental sensitivities when you start blasting away? It could impact the Earth’s environment.”

And what about enforcement of the rules? Rogue activity, debris?  

“There are far more questions than answers. It’s certainly a wild frontier,” Cohen added.  

NASA is underway in setting up an independent committee to review planetary protection policies. It includes how to prevent contamination by NASA spacecraft in habitable worlds, such as the moon and Mars and how to avoid contamination of Earth by alien life.

Eighteen months after Scully-Power returned to Earth, the Challenger exploded in midair, killing all seven astronauts. Millions of viewers watched the tragedy unfold on live TV. Credit: CNN

So far, only two of the three Australia-born, NASA-trained astronauts have actually gone up in space.  In 1984, oceanographer Paul D. Scully-Power orbited eight days on the Space Shuttle Challenger

Flight Engineer Andy Thomas crewed aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour and the Mir Space Station in 1996 and has flown four other missions for a total of 141 days in space.

Yet, the question remains up in the air; is it in the stars for the next Australian astronaut to take a trip to the moon?  

“To be determined. Stand by for news,” Jones said.