Although miners were the villains in James Cameron’s blockbuster movie Avatar, about a 22nd-century mining colony exploiting a local tribe on a lush moon called Pandora, the Canadian-born director’s latest business project involves real-life asteroid mining.
Mr. Cameron has joined a group of technology tycoons, including Google chief executive officer Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt, in a company called Planetary Resources Inc., of Seattle, which announced a plan last month to work toward mining valuable minerals from asteroids for profit.
While it sounds more like a science fiction story than a business plan, the possibility of mining in space is rapidly emerging, and several Canadian companies and agencies are quietly working on projects that will be needed when the search for off-Earth resources begins.
“It’s a new paradigm. Canada is a mining country with a lot of mining expertise,” said Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, director of space exploration development with the Canadian Space Agency in Ottawa. “So what we’re looking at is how we can apply this expertise in space.”
In the long term, the CSA and National Aeronautics and Space Administration are working on the possibility of eventually bringing high-value mineral resources, or perhaps some day even minerals not found on Earth, back from space.
Meanwhile, in the shorter term, their plans are focused on using resources mined in space to support projects on asteroids, the moon or Mars, Mr. Piedboeuf said.
“The first stage of mining on Earth is prospecting, so in space it will be the same,” he said. “First observation, then exploration, removal and then on-site drilling to get some samples and then analysis.
“Initially we were thinking of Mars exploration but then we started co-operation with NASA to work on what is called in-situ resource utilization,” he said, or ISRU, which refers to the idea of using resources that exist on planets, moons or asteroids to sustain projects on them.
The Northern Centre for Advanced Technology is a non-profit agency based in Sudbury that has been working on space mining projects since 2000. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Sudbury Basin is considered the world’s second largest meteor impact site, which created a crater filled with rich deposits of nickel, copper, platinum, gold and other metals that has been mined for decades.
That year NORCAT, which works closely with the mining industry on other technical equipment innovations as well as training programs, received a contract from the CSA to develop mining drills that could be used in space, said Dale Boucher, director of innovation and development for NORCAT.
In order for a manned mission to the moon to survive for longer than three days, the maximum length of time that life-supporting supplies transported in modern spacecraft can sustain life, it will be necessary to produce water and oxygen from resources available on the moon, Mr. Boucher explained.
“To soft-land a one-litre bottle of water on the moon costs a quarter of a million dollars,” he said. “So rather than transport supplies to the moon, it’s much cheaper to use resources on the moon to create the oxygen, water and energy that a moon mission that lasts longer than three days would require.”
Earlier this decade a moon mission discovered that there is water ice in significant quantities about one metre below the moon’s surface, he said, “and from that you can crack water into hydrogen and oxygen.”
But to acquire the water ice, drilling is required, just as it is for mining on Earth. “There are some similarities between drilling on Earth and outer space but there are some big differences, too,” Mr. Boucher said.
“When you drill on Earth, time is money, you want to drill your hole as quickly as possible,” he said.
But on the moon the situation is reversed because although energy is plentiful on Earth, it’s not as easily available on the moon, he said. “Drilling is a time-energy equation so if you want to drill using as little energy as possible, you would take a long time to drill.”
As a result, NORCAT’s drill operates on about the same amount of energy as a 100-watt light bulb.
Working with diamond drill-bit developer Dimatec Inc. of Winnipeg, NORCAT is developing a drill that will be ready for NASA’s RESOLVE ‘prospecting’ mission to the moon, that is expected later this decade.
The drill will be installed on a prototype lunar rover being developed by Neptec Design Group of Ottawa and with electronic controllers supplied by Xiphos Technologies of Montreal.
But to begin economic activity in space, government intervention will be required, Mr. Boucher said. For example, Canada has an effective mineral claim staking system, which will be required for space mining. “It would be helpful if the Canadian government can help extend that capability to outer space,” he said.
The mineral industry’s flow-through share tax incentive could also be adapted to help raise financing for the initiative, he said.
Commercial space mining is still years away but it seems that Mr. Cameron’s science fiction version is rapidly becoming reality as more Canadian businesses set their sights on mining in the sky.