When scientists announced a few years ago that ice had been found on the moon, most of us — Canadians in particular — would likely have envisioned something you could skate on. Lunar ice, however, contains not just the usual hydrogen and oxygen but also some serious contaminants such as mercury and chlorine. Nor would it necessarily resemble the smooth shiny stuff found in a hockey rink; instead, it should be a kind of powder. Nevertheless, any such form of water could prove to be nothing less than pure treasure to future colonists, a local resource that could help to make a moon base self-sustaining. And, in a move that should please this country’s ice-loving instincts, the first drill to be sunk into that resource is expected to be Canadian.

In 2012, Canadian rover prototype Artemis Jr. tested out moon-drilling techniques in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. 

The drill is being prepared for a lunar rover called Resource Prospector, which the United States’ civilian space agency NASA is planning to launch in 2020. This mission will be among the first tangible attempts at practical space mining, a field that could help us overcome the leading problem in space exploration — getting there. 

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that getting things into outer space is difficult. Even the most modest of rocket launches is a dramatic testimony to the daunting amount of energy that is required to escape our planet’s gravitational pull. The complexity, risk and sheer expense associated with such displays also underscore the outrageous price tag for any kind of space-related venture. When you have to bring every available resource with you, costs mount dramatically, if not exponentially.

For just that reason, people who are serious about setting up shop in outer space are starting to look more closely at resources that might be more easily obtained. For example, the various asteroids wandering throughout our solar system may well serve as a useful source of basic commodities like water and key minerals, which could be used to produce building materials, fuel, or even food. While it might look ambitious to consider chasing down one of these bodies in order to mine it, the economics of such a mission could well make sense if it means skirting the astronomical costs of bringing these same commodities from Earth.     

 Bryan Versteeg/Deep Space Industries

Deep Space Industries (above) and Planetary Resources are two startup companies hoping to turn a profit in space mining by the 2030s.  Photo credit: Bryan Versteeg/Deep Space Industries

NASA has ambitious plans for space mining. The agency is planning an asteroid sample return mission later this year called the Origins-Spectral Interpretation-Resource Identification-Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx. It will retrieve what is expected to be a carbon-rich mineral sample from the asteroid Bennu, which orbits around the sun but passes close to the Earth — only 448,794 kilometres away — every six years. Little altered over time, the asteroid, which is 580 metres in diameter, is expected to provide a snapshot of our solar system’s formation. OSIRIS-REx will use a Canadian-made laser altimeter to map the asteroid surface, allowing scientists to select an area where the spacecraft arm can collect a surface sample. The altimeter was built by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, which also made the space shuttle remote manipulator system called the Canadarm. (OSIRIS-REx will return to Earth by 2023.)

Since 2012, two American startup space companies: Planetary Resources (PR) and Deep Space Industries (DSI), announced plans to mine asteroids. According to PR CEO Chris Lewicki, the goal would be to serve space missions. The mass of some asteroids can be made up of as much as 20 percent water ice, bound up in substances such as clay. This water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen, both useful elements in space travel. Hydrogen can be reacted with oxygen to fuel spacecraft, while oxygen also keeps astronauts alive. In this way, asteroids could serve as fuelling stations for travellers on their way to Mars.

The fuelling station concept is one of two business cases PR and DSI have attached to the concept of space mining. The companies also envision a mining venture meeting the material needs of a permanent space colony located in low Earth orbit, about the same height as the International Space Station (ISS). Both proposals present significant challenges. In order to create a mining infrastructure in space, bigger space stations that launch astronauts more frequently must be constructed. Science fiction writers have long imagined such infrastructure, like the giant space stations found in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Trek, but no space agency or business today has the resources for this kind of construction. PR and DSI are betting that it will be done by a collaboration of government and businesses, including themselves. They point to the fact that the money currently being spent on the ISS is set to be reallocated after that project winds down in the mid-2020s.     

In the meantime, DSI and PR are each creating multiple income streams through ventures such as patents and technology development, including new propulsion systems or conducting simulated asteroid mining experiments. These firms acknowledge that they are looking a long way ahead to any kind of profitability, which may come no sooner than the 2030s. That schedule could be pushed back even further by political or social events, as well as accidents that might dampen the enthusiasm of potential investors. Nevertheless, company officials maintain their optimism. “We have considerable investment from government and private investors,” says Meagan Crawford, the vice-president of strategic communications at DSI. “It’s a little longer-term than most businesses; space companies can take a while. But it’s in line with space companies that have similarly grand plans,” Crawford says. 


Our early solar system was full of chaotic moments as space rocks collided with one other to create planets and untold millions of asteroids. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 

DSI and PR intend to do much of their initial prospecting from the ground, or with modest Earth-orbiting telescopes, in order to find “hydrated” asteroids that might be within striking distance for spacecraft that could go there for a closer look. While most of our solar system’s asteroids go around the sun in an orbit between that of Mars and Jupiter, some occasionally come much closer to us and present the opportunity for this kind of survey. 

Once we land a spacecraft on an asteroid, the next challenge will be liberating water from an asteroid’s regolith, the loose material that surrounds its rocky core. According to Chris Herd, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Earth and Atmospheric Science department who specializes in meteorites, this process is bound to require a lot of energy since any water is likely to be incorporated in clay and will have to be boiled out. Herd has already undertaken experiments proving that this is possible. His team has established that the temperature needed to break water free would be between 300 C and 500 C. “You break the bonds in the clays to liberate the water and then you have to capture it,” Herd says.

On an airless body with next to no gravity, this process must be carefully managed to make sure the water does not simply float away. On Earth, thermoanalytical hardware, such as differential scanning calorimeters, are used to keep such an activity on track; a space-borne version of such equipment would have to be far more lightweight and use lubricants that would stay supple in very low temperatures. 

Nor is this the only exotic hardware that is in the works for space mining. Two Canadian companies, Neptec and Deltion Innovations, are working out the logistics of developing a drill for getting water out of non-terrestrial surfaces. Their initial work is looking at the moon, where scientists have already identified pockets of water that could be usefully exploited by future colonists. 

In 2012, NASA tested out a prototype Canadian lunar rover called Artemis Jr. on the barren volcanic surface of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The rover, which was developed by Neptec with Canadian Space Agency funding, features a drill designed by a team led by Dale Boucher, who in 2013 created his own company, Deltion Innovations Ltd., located in Capreol, near the iconic northern Ontario mining centre of Sudbury. Such tests continue to shed light on the hurdles facing any space mining technology. “It’s a pretty challenging environment to be drilling in cryogenic conditions in the lunar pole,” says Brad Jones, Neptec’s program manager of the Artemis Jr. project. “The temperatures will be quite easily in the 40 Kelvin (-233 C) range, so not very far above absolute zero. Any machinery and mechanical parts in these environments have to be carefully designed to retain working tolerances that will operate at these low temperatures and yet be able to survive the rigours of the launch in [warm] temperatures that are common at Cape Canaveral, Fla., or wherever it gets launched from.”

Our solar system contains millions of asteroids, each one a relic from an earlier, more chaotic time in history. Through sheer coincidence, they have avoided being gobbled up by planets or ejected far out into space by the gravity of these larger bodies. With the right technology and a little luck, their carefully preserved stores of water and precious metals could hold the key to allowing humanity to escape the surly bonds of earth and truly embrace an extraterrestrial future.