The Colorado School of Mines, a public research university focused on science and engineering, announced last month that they will now be offering an advanced degree in Space Resources for students to get a flavor of what is to come in the future of both mining and space exploration. The announcement reads, in part:
“Space exploration has long been an aspiration of various scientists and engineers, and success in deep space missions depends on our ability to utilize the resources in outer space,” said Jamal Rostami, associate professor in the Department of Mining Engineering, where the program will be housed.
As space exploration continues, there will be a need for mining engineers who will actively participate in those missions, and can contribute to providing raw materials for a variety of activities, including onsite manufacturing, supplies of consumables, and fuels for space craft.
“Design of mining operations in space requires some out-of-the-box thinking and emphasis on automation, safety and remote operation,” Rostami said. “The Space Mining minor can facilitate this transition between the current state-of-the-art mining techniques and the operation of mines in the future both on earth and in space.”
This is a timely addition to the school’s program since NASA recently announced it selected four companies to collect lunar resources. According to the announcement, companies will collect a small amount of lunar regolith from any location on the Moon and provide imagery to NASA of the collection and the collected material, along with data that identifies the collection location. A NASA administrator noted that the “moon material collection would become part of a technology development program that would help astronauts ‘live off the land’ for crewed missions in the future to the moon or elsewhere.”
We have been reporting on the space mining phenomenon for several years as new developments and advances came to light. Just this year we wrote about Biomining on the Moon and noted that many countries are interested in space resources. The American Geosciences web site describes biomining as the process of using microorganisms (microbes) to extract metals of economic interest from rock ores or mine waste. Biomining techniques may also be used to clean up sites that have been polluted with metals. The most common processes used in biomining are agitated leaching, dump leaching, and heap leaching.
In First Asteroids, Now the Moon: Space Mining Inches Closer to Reality, we noted that European scientists have announced plans to start mining the moon as early as 2025, to mine and process regolith for useful materials such as water, oxygen, metals, and an isotope called helium-3, which may prove useful for fueling future fusion reactors. Helium-3 is a waste-free source of nuclear energy thought to be worth trillions of dollars. According to a Mining.com article, both India and China are also interested in extracting helium-3 from the moon.
NASA has plans to visit the asteroid, called “16 Psyche, and examine its surface as part of its Discovery Program, with an orbiter set to launch from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in August 2022. The mission would arrive at 16 Psyche in January 2026 and spend at least 21 months mapping and studying the asteroid’s unique properties. As we wrote in An Asteroid Worth Billions?, unlike most asteroids that are either rocky or icy, 16 Psyche is made almost entirely of iron and nickel, and could greatly boost the metals industry.
It will be interesting to see if the analytical technologies used here on earth, including portable mining and exploration solutions will be carried into space. Traditional mining sample analysis on earth often involves a costly and time consuming process of sending samples to off-site laboratories and waiting days, even weeks, for the results. If companies are mining in space, unless they have the proper lab on board, it will be a long trip to the earth lab. Handheld XRF analyzers can provide laboratory-grade sample analysis for rapid feedback during drilling operations, or to prequalify samples for off-site lab analysis. They are small and sufficiently lightweight to be an excellent solution in space.
Handheld XRF analyzers can also help streamline the exploration process of today, where mining geologists perform mineral exploration or ore grade control to figure out where the most profitable ore bodies are in terms of location and mineral concentration variability. The data collected during the grade control processes helps mining geologists conduct quantitative geochemical analysis of metal concentrations and create composite maps of elemental distributions within a sample to determine where the best targets are located. Geochemical maps can be used to see an anomaly or trend and make the most efficient and economical drilling and excavation decisions. Portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzers help in this process by providing fast acquisition of geochemical data for ore deposit modeling, easily determining ore boundaries and quickly identifying increasingly low-grade deposits.
To learn about earthly mining technologies, from mineral analysis to complete bulk weighing monitoring and sampling systems to informatics, download the free ebook: A Practical Guide to Improving Mining and Mineral Operations.
Download the free ebook: A Practical Guide to Improving Mining and Mineral Operations.