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The Case for a Decadal-Scale Robotic Lunar Exploration Program

The concept of mining on the moon is “embryonic”, notes Dale Boucher, a researcher from the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT), but with the right economic argument there will be companies interested in getting involved. Boucher co-authored the paper Assessing the Resource Potential of the Moon: The Case for a Decadal-Scale Robotic Lunar Exploration Program presented at this weeks Lunar Exploration Analysis Group meeting.


When the argument comes about expense, the counter-argument by researchers like Boucher is simple: there are only so many resources on earth, requiring us to look elsewhere to meet a growing population.
“We’ve been building, drilling and mining hardware for NASA and for the Canadian Space Agency, and it’s NORCAT’s position that in-situ resource utilization is a great place for Canada to carve out a niche,” Boucher added in a SpaceRef interview.
His paper, written in partnership with researchers from the Battelle Memorial Institution and the Colorado School of Mines, points out that the recent discovery of water deposits in the moon’s polar regions has brought about “intensified discussions” in the space community about how this could serve moon and Mars exploration.
Moon settlements could use titanium, iron, aluminum and silicon to construct solar cells, for example, and potential deposits of ammonia and carbon oxides could spur food growth.
“Every mining cycle has six or seven phases,” Boucher pointed out.
“It starts out with early orbital remote assets like RADARSAT or remote imaging of that type, and it gets more refined as it drills down, no pun intended, into detail.”
Mining companies get involved once there is a sense of what resources are available in a particular sector – depending on how much the elements in the ground are worth.
On NORCAT’s part, the firm is working with NASA on a project called RESOLVE: Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction. The goal is to get “ground truth” about the presence of hydrogen – which could be a sign of water ice – on the moon.
They’re creating a drill that would be able to drill down on the moon, which has been included in a lunar rover built by the robotics group at Carnegie Mellon.
The technology, which can analyze elements of the soil on site, was also deployed in two analogue missions in 2008 and early 2010 in Hawaii, where the slopes of Mauna Kea around 9,000 feet are similar to the Apollo 16 landing site.
“RESOLVE performed very well; we’re just trying to convince the powers that this really needs a full mission, and it looks promising,” Boucher said.

Shipping common resources back to Earth could actually depress mining hubs like Sudbury if something like nickel were to be brought back. Where the moon comes in handy is for mining resources such as helium-3, an element that Apollo astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt has been advocating for extraction in talks around the continent.
And it turns out a lot of the groundwork has already been done on the moon.
“In terms of something like the (Lunar) Reconnaissance Orbiter, they’ve done the first step,” Boucher said, referring to a NASA-led spacecraft providing 3D maps so powerful that it was able to image Apollo equipment left on the moon.
“Then you step back to (the) Clementine (orbiter), where they showed that preponderance of hydrogen signatures that might be ice in the poles, and Chandrayaan-1 and Selene: they have all attacked that very first step in resource identification and resource delineation.
“So we’re now starting to narrow the zones where there’s potentially water ice, or there’s potentially ammonium, or materials for oxygen production.”
According to Boucher, Canada has the highest concentration of mining expertise per capita worldwide, and is involved in virtually every type of mining activity in the world.
Along with experience in working with sensitive areas – think Aboriginal lands in Canada’s north – Boucher said the country is well-positioned to be a leader in extraterrestrial mining as well, given the right support.
There also is, he said, an understanding that working in space takes decades. Mining officials are already used to long time horizons; an INCO mine in Borneo took 40 years and $10 billion to complete, but only had a lifespan of about 10 years, he said.
“The Canadian mining industry has a lot to share with the space industry, and Canada also has a great industry in robotics. Combining robotics know-how puts Canada a decade or two ahead in terms of the rest of the world.”

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Canadian space writer for Space.com, Discovery News, LiveScience and more. I teach at Algonquin College and the University of Ottawa. I also am pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota.