Sun, Apr 07, 2019 - Page 15 News List

Australia plans to mine moon water in five years

By James Thornhill  /  Bloomberg

Australia is joining a growing number of nations looking to compete in space, from launching microsatellites that track sheep to mining water on the moon. Its advantage? Half the country already looks like Mars.

With advances in technology and the falling cost of launch slots, the fledgling Australian Space Agency (ASA), set up last year, is taking a commercial approach to extraterrestrial ventures.

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 (US$8.5 billion) by 2030.

“We’re witnessing a massive transformation of the sector, due to things like the miniaturization of technology, the lowering cost of launch and faster innovation cycles,” ASA Deputy Head Anthony Murfett said in an interview.

ASA aims to be “one of the most industry-focused space agencies in the world,” he said.

It will need to be. The government budget for ASA is just A$41 million for four years, compared with NASA’s annual US$20 billion and the European Space Agency’s 5.7 billion euros (US$6.4 billion). Without deep pockets, Australia’s ambitious space projects would need to be commercial enough to interest businesses.

Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Center for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales, is focused on reducing the investment risk for big companies, such as Rio Tinto Group, in a proposal to mine water on the moon.

“What’s preventing them from participating at the moment is that the risks that are there are not risks they have dealt with before,” Dempster said.

So as well as tackling the engineering challenge, his team needs to make a compelling business case.

Rio Tinto in a report in January said 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.

Moon water could be a potential source of rocket fuel to enable crewed 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,” Dempster said. “If you can produce water in space for less than it costs to get there, then you’re ahead.”

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 there, and an Indian lander and rover are due to launch this month. 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, such as SpaceX, that are making space more easily accessible.

Some Australian resources companies are already adapting terrestrial technology for space.

Woodside Petroleum Ltd, Australia’s biggest listed oil and gas producer, partnered with NASA to use robot technology to improve safety at its offshore platforms.

Woodside would also collaborate with ASA to apply its expertise in remote operations to the space sector.

While ASA is less than nine months old, Australia’s cosmic ambitions go back to the earliest days of the space race. It was one of the first countries to launch a satellite from its own territory, sending a probe into orbit from the Woomera military site as early as 1967.

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