Modern Australian

well placed to join the Moon mining race ... or is it?

  • Written by Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW
well placed to join the Moon mining race ... or is it?

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.

Read more: How realistic are China's plans to build a research station on the Moon?

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 27x1018 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”.

Read more: Curious Kids: How does the Moon, being so far away, affect the tides on Earth?

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.

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

Read more http://theconversation.com/australia-well-placed-to-join-the-moon-mining-race-or-is-it-111746

NEWS

could new opioid restrictions stop leftover medicines causing harm?

ShutterstockSeveral changes to the regulation of opioid supply in Australia come into effect today (June 1).Opioids are strong medicines used for pain. The new rules – including reducing pack sizes...

A time to embrace the edge spaces that make our neighbourhoods tick

ShutterstockAs we emerge from COVID-19 lockdowns, it is timely to reflect on how the design of our neighbourhoods and the ways we interact with them affect our lived experience.A clear...

6 easy ways to stop light pollution from harming our wildlife

ShutterstockAs winter approaches, marine turtle nesting in the far north of Australia will peak. When these baby turtles hatch at night, they crawl from the sand to the sea, using...

Australia's first service sector recession will be unlike those that have gone before it

ShutterstockAustralia is on the brink of its first recession in almost 30 years. The Australian Bureau of Statistics will deliver the official economic growth figure for the March quarter on...

3 ways plus a potted history

Alex Motoc/Unsplash, CC BYAs winter begins, porridge makes an excellent choice for breakfast. For many, porridge is redolent with memories of childhood. It is warm, filling, high in fibre and...

Lab experiments in the pandemic moved online or mailed home to uni students

hxdbzxy/ShutterstockThe COVID-19 pandemic has shaken university education, with most teaching moved off campus and students learning online at home.But a cornerstone of undergraduate science education has been a challenge: the...

Forget ‘murder hornets’, European wasps in Australia decapitate flies and bully dingoes

nutmeg66/flickr, CC BY-NCThe impacts of invasive mammals such as feral horses and feral cats have featured prominently in the media over the years.But the recent discovery of the infamous “murder...

As Minneapolis burns, Trump's presidency is sinking deeper into crisis. And yet, he may still be re-elected

Sipa USA Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS/SipViolence has erupted across several US cities after the death of a black man, George Floyd, who was shown on video gasping for breath as a...

Digital-only local newspapers will struggle to serve the communities that need them most

ShutterstockThis week News Corp Australia announced the end of the print editions of 112 suburban and regional mastheads – about one-fifth of all of Australia’s local newspapers. Of those, 36...

Scott Morrison strengthens his policy power, enshrining national cabinet and giving it "laser-like" focus on jobs

Scott Morrison has won support for a major restructure of federal-state architecture which scraps the Council of Australian Governments, enshrines the “national cabinet” permanently, and pares down a plethora of...

Trump’s Twitter tantrum may wreck the internet

US President Donald Trump, who tweeted more than 11,000 times in the first two years of his presidency, is very upset with Twitter.Earlier this week Trump tweeted complaints about mail-in...

Government to repay 470,000 unlawful robodebts in what might be Australia's biggest-ever financial backdown

In a near-complete capitulation, the government will refund every alleged overpayment it has collected from welfare recipients under the discredited “robodebt” system of income averaging.Unveiling the automated system in mid-2016...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

Key Roles and Responsibilities of Criminal LawyersTop benefits of buying a house and land packageWhat is the role of a Weighted Blanket? How Can You Become a LifesaverWhat You Should Know About Front End Smash RepairsAdvantages of Living in a Retirement VillageIf you buy virtual currency, use a safe and secure exchangeUrban Development: Trends Shaping The Future of CitiesThree cities worth visiting in PolandUpgrade your career in beauty therapy with these short beauty courses6 Ways To Treat Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)Top Tips for the Best Camping TripHealthy Cooking at Home - Tips & TricksMental Health and Covid-19: How Effective are Health- Supplements?Know the Best Times to Eat Protein Bars