Human progress has always been dependent on the restricted resources available on Earth. However, the moon, despite its appearance as a barren rock, could be a treasure mine of rare resources important to Earth's survival.
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Mining on the Moon
The moon has long been considered a desirable location for space mining operations. In the wake of NASA's international space mining expeditions, the moon is likely to be the first commercial mining site in space.
The moon is relatively close to Earth in the solar system, and the connection lags are only a few seconds, making it possible to remotely control robots from Earth. Due to its low gravity, relatively little energy will be required to transport mined materials to Earth's orbit.
What Types of Celestial Minerals Will Be Mined?
Previous geological surveys have demonstrated that the moon possesses three essential resources: water, rare earth metals, and Helium-3.
Extracting water from the Moon is essential for sustaining life and cultivation in outer space. Water on the moon can also be converted into oxygen and rocket fuel.
Helium-3 is an extremely rare isotope of helium among naturally occurring isotopes on Earth. This isotope has been considered a replacement for Uranium-235 as a fuel source for nuclear reactors. Helium is not radioactive; therefore, if Helium-3 proves successful and efficient in nuclear fusion reactors, it can become a source of limitless green energy.
In 2011, NASA discovered titanium ores ten times more abundant on the moon than on Earth. Titanium creates an alloy resistant to extreme temperatures, lightweight, very strong, and corrosion-resistant when mixed with aluminum or iron. It could be utilized to make medical implants, engines, and structural frameworks.
A total of 17 different rare metals, including Yttrium and Scandium, are extremely difficult to find on Earth but could be found on the moon. It is possible to use moon metals in the engines of automobiles and the production of glass and ceramics, electrical devices, radar systems, and superconductors.
Challenges and Role of Robotics in Mining
Mining on the moon is likely to use various robots for safety and economic reasons. Robotic dozing, excavation, robotic surveying and mapping, handling explosives, and drilling are just a few of the many applications of robotics in mining. Robots can easily handle open pit mining for extracting resources at irregular thick deposits on the surface at shallow depths.
Extracting resources from the moon will have to rely on robots with a high level of autonomy due to the difficulty of establishing a large-scale human presence in space and the unavailability of real-time interplanetary communication.
Although semi-automated mining systems exist on Earth, they rely on advanced infrastructures such as global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), easy access to fuel, well-maintained roads, and maintenance. These facilities will not be available in international space mining missions where robots will face hazardous terrain, a lack of precise positioning systems, restricted power supply, and various other challenges.
In addition to navigating in an unstructured environment and avoiding obstacles without exact satellite positioning, a robot could maneuver and interact with other robots without causing damage. To ensure long-term functioning, each robot should have a high level of intelligence and a multi-robot coordination mechanism.
Recent Developments in Space Mining
Cornell University researchers have developed a solution to overcome major obstacles to autonomous robots for collaborative space mining, which include the absence of navigation in hazardous terrain, satellite positioning systems, and the necessity for sensitive robot interactions.
The designed robot extensively uses machine-learning-based robotic perception to achieve precise localization, conceptual mapping of the lunar surface, and object detection to permit precise close-range movement between rovers.
The system is an implementation of autonomous space mining within the NASA SRCP2 framework. The rovers can successfully travel and extract space resources from the simulated lunar environment for lengthy periods when guided by robotic vision.
Periodically, the vision system corrects localization drift and creates a persistent map that provides semantic scene interpretation in rover interaction and obstacle avoidance.
NASA Space Robotics Challenge
The Space Robotics Challenge is a virtual competition designed to enhance autonomous capabilities and robotic software for space research missions on the surface of distant planets and moons. The competition occurs within a simulation software environment.
The first phase of the competition was completed in June 2017 and centered on the R5 humanoid robot functioning in a virtual Mars environment. It consisted of two rounds of challenges and tasked contestants with enhancing the technology development and dexterity capabilities of humanoid robots to allow them to work alongside and independently of astronauts.
Through these challenges, NASA aims to develop robots that will take part in international space expeditions and set up life-support systems before the arrival of astronauts, build habitats, establish communications, and conduct preliminary scientific research.
The Future of Space Mining
The moon has always inspired humanity. Its presence has stimulated a sense of space exploration and a drive to explore uncharted realms. As the population of our planet rises, it will be essential to seek out alternative sources to maintain its natural resources.
However, before humanity launches a serious endeavor to explore the moon and beyond, numerous technological and moral questions must be resolved. Today, establishing the foundation for peaceful growth could go a long way toward uniting nations under a single, global strategy.
References and Further Readings
NASA. (2022). NASA's Centennial Challenges: Space Robotics Challenge. [Online]. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/centennial_challenges/space_robotics/about.html
Sachdeva, R., Hammond, R., Bockman, J., Arthur, A., Smart, B., Craggs, D., & Reid, I. (2022). Robotic Vision for Space Mining. arXiv preprint arXiv:2109.12109v3. https://doi.org/10.48550/arXiv.2109.12109
Staedter, T. (2020). Why on Earth Should We Be Mining the Moon? [Online]. Available at: https://now.northropgrumman.com/why-on-earth-should-we-be-mining-the-moon/
Xu, F. (2020). The approach to sustainable space mining: issues, challenges, and solutions. In IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering (Vol. 738, No. 1, p. 012014). IOP Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1088/1757-899X/738/1/012014