Since the 1994 discovery of water ice on the moon by the Clementine spacecraft, excitement has reigned at the prospect of a return to the moon. This followed two decades of the doldrums after the end of Apollo, a malaise that was symptomatic of an underlying lack of incentive to return.
That water changed everything. The water ice deposits are located at the poles of the moon hidden in the depths of craters that are forever devoid of sunlight.
Since then, not least due to the International Space Station, we have developed advanced techniques that allow us to recycle water and oxygen with high efficiency. This makes the value of supplying local water for human consumption more tenuous.
The European Space Agency has said it plans to start mining water on the moon by the middle of the next decade. Dempster’s goal is to send a mission there within five years, citing the proliferation of private companies like SpaceX that are making space more easily accessible.
Lunar exploration is becoming increasingly crowded. China in January landed the first vehicle on the far side of the moon, Israel’s privately funded Beresheet probe is on its way.
Australia is joining the growing number of nations looking to compete in space, from launching microsatellites that track sheep to mining water on the moon.
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Andrew Dempster, Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales, is focused on reducing the investment risk for big resources companies like Rio Tinto Group in a proposal to mine water on the moon.
Rio said in a January report that it was engaging with the industry to see how its mining technology could be used in space, in particular its use of autonomous drilling.
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Moon water could be a potential source of rocket fuel to enable manned missions to Mars in the long-term. “Getting things from the surface of the Earth into orbit or into deep space costs a lot of money,” said Dempster. “If you can produce water in space for less than it costs to get there, then you’re ahead.”
Hydrogen is highly useful as a reductant as well as a fuel. The moon is a vast repository of oxygen within its minerals but it requires hydrogen or other reductant to be freed.
For instance, ilmenite is an oxide of iron and titanium and is a common mineral on the moon. Heating it to around 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) with hydrogen reduces it to water, iron metal (from which an iron-based technology can be leveraged) and titanium oxide.
But there are other, more pragmatic issues that emerge. How do we access these water ice resources buried near the lunar surface? They are located in terrain that is hostile in every sense of the word, in deep craters hidden from sunlight — no solar power is available — at temperatures of around 40 Kelvin, or -233 degrees C (-390 degrees F).
With advances in technology and the falling cost of launch slots, the fledgeling Australian Space Agency, set up last year, is taking a commercial approach to extra-terrestrial ventures.
The government budget for ASA is just A$41 million for four years, compared to NASA’s annual $20 billion and the European Space Agency’s 5.7 billion euros ($6.4 billion). Without deep pockets, Australia’s ambitious space projects will need to be commercial enough to interest businesses.
It aims to leverage the country’s industrial skills in mining remote locations, developing automation and tapping a fast-growing start-up culture to triple the size of the sector to A$12 billion ($8.5 billion) by 2030.