South Africa should seek to become a source of expertise for mining in space by combining its knowledge of mining engineering with its new drive to develop space sciences and engineering, in line with the objectives of the South African National Space Association (Sansa), argues Hatch mining engineer Michael Neale.
The creation of Sansa underpins South Africa’s goal to develop its space sciences, technology and engineering capabilities, including supporting space operations (its own, as well as those of other countries), conducting earth observation and devel- oping space expertise in a number of fields, he says.
“It is vital to develop engineering capabilities for sustainable human presence in space,” Neale asserts, adding that the initial phase of space exploration and space mining is likely to be conducted using off-the-shelf technologies currently used or under development for terrestrial mining.
This gives South Africa a tantalising opportunity to expand and develop cur- rently applied technologies and research and development to support future space programmes, while also fulfilling Sansa’s objectives of scientific advance and human capital development, he explains.
“I am trying to get our space agency to talk to the space mining enthusiasts at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) to see if we can get any advice from them. Some of Nasa’s space mining experts are also coming to the sixty-second International Astronomical Congress to be held in Cape Town from October 3 to 7,” he says.
Neale points to a number of initiatives, both commercial and governmental, that promote interest in, and the development of, capabilities to sustainably stay on the moon.
“Most people think that mining on the moon is unfeasible, or that it will not happen in their lifetimes. But, if we consider the short time in which people landed, walked and drove on the moon after the initial announcement of the Apollo series of lunar missions, then space mining and exploration of our solar system can happen in our lifetimes,” he explains, adding that this presents both scientific and commercial challenges and oppor- tunities to countries and companies.
Commercial lunar mining business Shackleton Energy Company, for example, plans to take water from the moon to the International Space Station (ISS) and to refuel earth orbiting satellites before the end of the decade, while global search engine and cloud computing company Google will give $30-million to the first team to land, traverse 500 m and send pictures from the moon by 2015, explains Neale.
“This is very exciting for me because these are private, commercial companies supporting these initiatives, which means that they believe in the concept and long- term prospects. Further, Nasa will soon be relying on commercial companies such as space exploration technologies company SpaceX to resupply the ISS.”
“I see an opportunity here. Since Sansa is mandated to develop space sciences, technology and engineering resources and skills, I think South African companies can tap into some of these resources, as well as international commercial opportunities, if these companies want to develop space engineering,” he says.
The development of engineering and mining in space is premised on in situ resource use, which promotes the use of resources from the immediate environ- ment to reduce or eliminate the high cost of sending all materials and equipment from earth.
“There are people working on auto- mated mining methods and machinery on earth. But what they do not know is that they are already indirectly working on space mining (where the distances and communication delays necessitate automation),” he says.
Further, supplying water to the ISS from the moon can be much cheaper than flying it up to the space station from earth, and the hydrogen and oxygen elements can also be used as fuel for further missions, such as to Mars.
However, analysis of the water on the moon must still be done to ensure its safety and usability, which means that the goal of mining in space, and space engineering in general, will drive scientific discovery and development, he adds.
“The development of space engineering will help to develop space sciences, as well as help to develop technologies that can be applied on earth. There are a lot of interesting engineering questions and effectiveness trade-offs that must be solved to develop efficient and effective space-mining systems, driving scientific understanding and technological development,” he notes.
Neale founded the South African Space Resources Association (Sasra) to spread awareness about the possibilities of space resource mining, to lobby South Africa to make technical contributions and to foster an interest in education through advocating space resources.
Neale, with the support of Hatch Africa, also created the Hatch Space Resource Community of Practice, a platform where Hatch employees can gather information, pose questions and share their relevant technical expertise with other interested parties. The company also supported and funded his attendance and presentation at a space resources conference, in Ottawa, Canada, this year.
“I am passionate about this subject. Space resources is a very exciting topic and I hope to get the involvement of as many people as possible through these two platforms,” he concludes.