Today started at the much more relaxed 8:45 am – not because the conference organisers felt like that was a more appropriate time, but because our Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science decided he couldn’t make it. Or something. I felt doubly snubbed as Pyne is my local MP AND a graduate of my school. C’mon Chris.
There were a lot of great talks today, (and definitely more of a space theme) so I’ll just summarise some of my favourites.
The morning started off with a presentation by Rene Fradet, Deputy Director of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), on the potential for a common journey between exploration/science and mining in space. My supervisor introduced me to Rene over lunch and we were able to broach the possibility of visiting JPL in California (or even spending some time researching there!?) and collaborating with their scientists, some of whom are also working on mapping the interior of asteroids with geophysics.
Dr Seher Ata from UNSW spoke about ‘Resource recovery in space’, or more specifically, how to process and separate materials in space. If we want to to mine and then utilise material in space without having to bring it down to Earth, we’ll need to develop ways to process and separate materials in a microgravity environment. Many terrestrial separation methods such as froth flotation and magnetic separation rely on gravity. For example, using magnets to separate out magnetic material is only worthwhile if everything else is being pulled away by gravity, and bubbles won’t rise in a liquid, which makes froth flotation difficult to impossible. One audience member suggested centripetal force, but as you add more moving parts you increase the chances of something going wrong. I wondered aloud why we couldn’t utilise that lovely vacuum we have around us in space to induce some kind of air flow/movement and use that instead of gravity. Apparently that wasn’t actually too bad an idea, and I was told to look into it. Geez, I’m just a geophysicist! Let me know if you are a metallurgist and have some clue on how to advance this crack pot idea.
Another good talk was by Dr Jeff Coulton from UNSW Business School about an MBA elective he ran on costing resource projects. To make things a little more interesting, he gave the students a choice between three off-Earth mining projects; mining Ceres, mining the Moon or mining a near Earth orbit asteroid (NEO). The students were mostly from an IT or finance background, and so had little technical experience in terms of space science or engineering. They were told to assume the project was technically feasible, and to make assumptions on costs, resource values, demand etc. This simple experiment suggested that mining the boon had an initial capital expenditure of $9 billion (Au) and a net present value (NPV) of around $-450 billion. So you would lose $450 billion. Not very attractive. But – mining Ceres had a capex of around $22 billion and an NPV of around $80 billion, and mining an NEOhad a capex of just $492 million and an NPV of $295 million. Of course, these assume technical feasibility for these projects, which isn’t necessarily true at present, but what they demonstrate is a strong reliance of economics on the choice of discount rate and selling points.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a few talks on space law, but just plain surprised to see a presentation by an academic on space ethics. He opened his presentation with “As a humanities scholar I’m going to do something that annoys non-humanities scholars, and that is to read to you.” And he did just that. But I must say it was an enjoyable talk which got me thinking about a few things I hadn’t considered. For example, Dr Thom van Dooren focussed on the point that the economic, environmental, technical, scientific and cultural concerns related to space cannot be addressed individually, they are all entangled. Despite the low chances of humanity establishing a backup planet elsewhere, the implications for our survival and expansion are profound. One way to look at this is called ‘worlding’ – “What kind of world are we creating and what are the implications for whom?”
For example, mining helium-3 on the Moon might have obvious positive implications for some, but for others, damaging space environments may be seen as intrinsically wrong, and for others still it may be seen to be offending deities. How do we balance these concerns against others? Van Dooren argues that their concerns are not null.
Professor Steven Freeland began his presentation on space law with an amusing story. He was reading an article about space law in the Wall Street Journal. Oh great, he thinks, this will be interesting. Then he sees the title: “If a Martian crashes into your spacecraft, who is liable?” After a theatrical groan, he decides he can make a better summary of space law than the article.
Dr Alice Gorman gave a unique account of the importance of cultural heritage on the Moon and the implications of Moon dust, which, surprisingly, is actually a pretty big problem. Lunar dust is extremely sharp and abrasive due to the lack of erosional processes such as wind and flowing water. The grains can be highly electro-statically charged, and can levitate, especially when the terminator (sharp night/day boundary on the Moon) passes, due to the rapid change in temperature. Some particles are even assumed to reach lunar escape velocity speeds when human activity such as rover are in the vicinity. Imagine one of these dust grains hitting you at escape velocity!
Widespread mining of the lunar surface may even create an upper atmospheric dust layer, which could prevent aforementioned particles at escape velocity from actually leaving the surface. The implications of such a feature forming were left for us to imagine!
Apologies to any presentations that I missed, as they were all excellent talks. Leave a comment below or email me if you’d like to hear more about any of the talks, and I can go into more detail and discuss. A list of conference papers can be found via this link.
Tonight featured a presentation by Brian Muirhead of JPL, who is the manager of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). I’ll do a separate blog post about that as it’s a mission I’m really excited about, but for now I’d just like to share this very amusing and poignant image.
Maybe the dinosaurs would have survived if they had put more funding into their space program? Let’s not make the same mistake.
The Future Mining Conference finished up today, but the Off-Earth Mining Forum will continue tomorrow, featuring more talks from asteroid mining start ups and space scientists/engineers.