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The High Frontier: The Birth of Self-Sustaining Space Outposts

by Wilson da Silva about a year ago in space · updated 7 months ago

A new space race is unfolding, driven by commerce and permanent bases on the Moon. To succeed, they’ll need to be self-sustaining.

WHEN SOPHIA Casanova was 10, her parents bought her a telescope, and she fell head over heels for all things space. She’d spend lazy summers in her hometown of Sydney, Australia, in the late 1990s revelling in the stars and watching the haunting phases of the serene, implacable Moon.

“That was the tipping point, really,” says the young Australian geologist, who’s now busily designing missions to prospect for — and eventually mine — water ice on the Moon and Mars. “It’s absolutely incredible to see through a telescope,” she says of the Moon, which she still views through a bigger, fancier telescope. “You see so much detail.”

When she started her doctorate in off-world resource extraction in 2017, space mining was considered science fiction. Now, she will have the pick of jobs in the booming space resources field around the world.

That’s partly because the U.S. space agency NASA has committed to return humans to the Moon in the 2020s under Project Artemis, building a permanent base there as a precursor to crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s. NASA is also partnering with Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada to build the Lunar Gateway, a space station in lunar orbit, and has commissioned nine private companies to develop landers that can deliver payloads to the Moon and back.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has announced plans to start mining the Moon for water and oxygen by 2025. China has sent three rovers to the Moon, including the first to land on the far side in 2019, and is preparing four more robotic missions that will return samples from the south pole (thought to be rich in ice) ahead of plans to land a mini-mining facility in 2027 that could be used to support a Chinese base in the 2030s.

But there’s also a boom underway in the global space industry in general, driven by the tumbling cost of launches coupled with burgeoning demand for broadband, navigation services, satellite observation and even tourism. It’s expanding at a compound annual growth rate 5.6% and is forecast to reach US$558 billion by 2026.

Geologist Sophia Casanova with the backup Mars rover to Curiosity at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, USA [Credit: Sophia Casanova]

“When I started my PhD, there was no interest in the Moon, and I thought it was something that might happen in the next 30 or 40 years,” grins Casanova. “Now, there’s a whole lot of start-ups, and it’s a struggle to keep up with everything that’s happening. It’s very exciting. There are all these opportunities out there, in all different directions.”

THE GOLD RUSHES of the mid 19th century spurred economic development and waves of immigration: the California Gold Rush, sparked by the discovery of nuggets in the Sacramento Valley in early 1848, brought some 300,000 people to the then sleepy, little-known backwater territory and turned San Francisco from a small settlement of about 200 to a chaotic boomtown of 40,000 a year later, with 4,000 immigrants arriving by ship each month. The city quickly became the largest and most important commercial, naval and financial centre in the American West — eventually giving birth to the heartland of Silicon Valley.

Gold booms also ensued in many parts of the world: Alaska, South Africa, Canada and Australia. Ballarat and Bendigo, once sleepy sheep paddocks in rural Australia, developed into prosperous towns after gold was discovered nearby. The region’s capital, Melbourne — little more than a country town of 23,000 people in 1851 — grew absurdly wealthy and prosperous as a result, doubling in population three times by 1890.

In space, water will play a similar role. Liquid water cannot persist on the Moon’s surface, and quickly dissipates when subjected to the blistering heat of the Sun and the relentless vacuum of space. However, large quantities of water ice have been detected in cold, permanently shadowed craters, especially at the Moon’s poles where sunlight rarely reaches; there’s also good evidence that water, in low concentrations, is embedded in lunar regolith ‘soil’ over much of the Moon’s surface.

Water, or H₂O, isn’t just useful for drinking or growing food inside the human bases planned for the Moon: it can be split into its constituent molecules of hydrogen and oxygen, providing air to breathe and allowing the two to be used to create rocket fuel.

And it’s here where the ‘gold rush’ analogy arises.

What makes space such an expensive business is that Earth’s gravitational pull is so strong: sending a rocket into space requires that it travel at 29,000 km per hour just to reach orbit. Hence, it burns a lot of fuel — in fact, about 90% of its launch weight is just fuel. Which is why launches can cost between US$2,500 to US$25,000 per kilogram — and that’s just to reach low Earth orbit, or up to 2,000 km up.

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch of the Arabsat-6A satellite from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre [Credit: SpaceX]

Importantly, the rocket also has to carry along whatever fuel it will need once it reaches orbit, as there are no filling stations in space. And it needs even more fuel to go into geostationary orbit, where most communications satellites are parked, and a whole lot more to reach the Moon or Mars.

But what if there were filling stations in space, with rocket fuel made on the Moon, whose gravity is only 16.7% of Earth’s? Ten times more useable fuel could be launched into orbit to refuel rockets from Earth, due to the Moon’s lower gravity.

Or fuel could be made on Mars, which only has 38% of Earth’s gravity — making it dramatically cheaper to manufacture relaunch fuel at your destination, rather than shipping it from Earth or the Moon. Or on asteroids, which have almost no gravity at all: in fact, groups have proposed capturing an ice-rich asteroid and putting into lunar orbit, so it can be mined for water, fuel and oxygen.

Suddenly, space travel — missions to Mars, the Moon, even refuelling old satellites already in Earth orbit — become much cheaper, and more feasible.

An infographic on the nascent space mining industry [Planetary Resources]

“If you’re able to provide fuel along the way, then you are saving yourself an enormous cost,” says Prof. Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW. “If you could produce fuel on the Moon or from an asteroid, maybe store it in lunar orbit, you could refuel lunar missions or head off to Mars, saving yourself quite a lot of launch mass from the surface of Earth.”

That’s where Australia’s long expertise in mining is very appealing to NASA. In February 2020, Dempster and colleague Prof. Serkan Saydam, from UNSW’s School of Minerals and Energy Resources — who is Casanova’s PhD advisor — met with senior NASA staff in Washington DC to lay out plans for how to extract fuel, oxygen and water from the Moon.

Prof. Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales in Sydney [Credit: UNSW]

“It’s really happening quite fast now,” says Saydam, who with Dempster has been pioneering space mining research in Australia, have 12 doctoral students working on space resource extraction projects, and have been collaborating with scientists around the world since 2012. “The unique approach we bring is that we’ve being applying mining engineering approaches to space missions, which makes resource extraction more feasible, and ultimately make them commercially attractive to investors.”

While Project Artemis was the focus of those meetings, there’s also widespread interest elsewhere. “Multiple space agencies are planning missions, and we’re seeing a lot of interest from private companies as well,” says Saydam. “The Moon is sexy again.”

FRONTING THE GRAND boulevard of North Terrace in Adelaide, Australia, is the heritage-listed art deco McEwin Building that once housed the surgical block of the old Royal Adelaide Hospital. It is now home to the Australian Space Agency (ASA), created in 2018 to capitalise on the roaring global space business. Australia was late to the game: of the 36 countries making up the rich nations’ club of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it alone did not have one. And those other nations are spending US$71 billion a year to capture a slice of the global business.

The entrance to the Australian Space Agency in Adelaide [Credit: Nick Cubbin]
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) opens the Australian Space Agency’s headquarters in Adelaide [Credit: Wilson da Silva]

With a small staff of 27, ASA has been busy trying to catch up, coordinating the nation’s research centres, existing infrastructure and aerospace companies to work together with the phalanx of Australian start-ups which have emerged since 2015. Already, Australia’s space industry employs almost 10,000 people and is worth US$3.1 billion; while the Space Industry Association of Australia has identified 558 local groups with space industry capabilities.

ASA is headed by another geologist, Dr Megan Clark, previously the first female chief executive of Australia's national science agency, the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation). And her team has been busy, creating partnerships with NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as counterparts in France, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. And it has signed agreements with large aerospace and satellite companies like Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Thales as well as 10 others, including Australia’s largest oil and gas concern, Woodside Energy.

Along with a US$32 million budget over the four years, it has a US$116 million kitty to help NASA advance its Artemis program. By showcasing Australia’s technical capability in such a high-profile space endeavour, ASA hopes to snaffle a bigger share of the global space economy, now worth US$345 billion annually. Currently, Australia’s share is just 0.8%; ASA hopes to triple the size of the domestic industry to US$10 billion by 2030 and create up to 20,000 local jobs.

“There are significant areas where Australia can contribute,” Clark says, her bespectacled eyes lighting up as she describes the global geo-data company Furgo, based in Australia’s western city of Perth, which has pioneered real-time control of robots using satellites to inspect and repair offshore oil rigs in the deep ocean.

“That’s an extreme environment [with simulated] low-gravity, and everything needs to be airtight as it does in space. That setup, which happens every day in a commercial operation, is so close to what we will need to do in space. So, NASA looks to us and says, ‘What you’re doing in Australia commercially is what we are going to need to do on the Moon, on Mars and in orbit.’

Dr Megan Clark, head of the Australian Space Agency [Credit: Nick Cubbin]

“If you look back 40 years, 80% of investment in space was by government space agencies and defence. That’s completely flipped — now, more than 75% of investment is commercial,” she adds, citing companies like SpaceX, Kepler and Swarm which are all building constellations of small satellites for broadband and to communicate with growing sensor networks on farms, remote mining sites and at sea.

“We’re seeing the industrialisation of low Earth orbit,” she enthused.

Adjoining ASA’s offices on the building’s top floor are a mix of open plan workspaces, breakout areas and meeting rooms for the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre. It’s a newly-formed powerhouse of industry research, bringing together 17 universities, the CSIRO, Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group, and 43 companies — including 30 start-ups and three global heavyweights. It’s snared US$43 million in Australian government funding and raised US$148 million from industry.

The model of WRESAT, Australia's first satellite, launched 1967, in the lobby of the Australian Space Agency [Credit: Wilson da Silva]

In the lobby, a glass display wall highlights Australian space milestones, including a life-size model of WRESAT: in 1967, it became the first Australian satellite, makingAustralia only the fourth nation to launch one from its own territory (after Russia, USA and France). Sadly, that early lead was abandoned, and it took 31 years for the next local satellite to fly: the 1998 launch of WPLTN-1, a soccer ball-sized research satellite sent up on a Russian rocket.

All that changed in 2017, when Australia sent up four ‘cubesats’ — bread loaf-sized satellites that are all the rage among universities, defence and start-ups. Made with off-the-shelf parts and cheap but powerful computer chips created for smartphones, cubesats are used for a dizzying variety of uses, like disaster response or climate monitoring. And they can be flown in swarms, collecting multiple measurements from ground or sea sensors simultaneously.

“Collecting data from space was once what governments and large companies did, because it was difficult and expensive to launch a satellite,” says Prof. Andy Koronios, chief executive of SmartSat CRC. “But it’s a thousand times cheaper than it was 15 years ago, because launch costs have fallen, and you can now get 1,000 times more computing power in a small package.”

That’s changed the equation for Australia, he says: “We actually have a strong pedigree and a long history in space with excellent capabilities in instrumentation and communications. But that research has not been brought together to build an industry for Australia or capitalise on the rapid growth of the global space economy … which is what we’re doing.”

Whether it’s monitoring bushfires or predicting crop yields, Australians have long relied on buying time on other people’s satellites. “For a nation with a footprint covering nearly a tenth of the planet, we have very little presence in space. But that’s now changing.”

Prof. Andy Koronios of the SmartSat CRC [Credit: Wilson da Silva]
Carley Scott, of Equatorial Space Australia, speaking at an industry event; Southern Launch’s Lloyd Damp is second from the right [Credit: Wilson da Silva]

He envisions fleets of Australian satellites that map soil moisture on farms and national parks, detect illegal fishing vessels, predict flood paths based on topography, track bushfires in real time or even track individual cattle fitted with small sensors “like Fitbits,” he grins. Equipped with artificial intelligence, satellites could send alerts when pastures need watering, or when cattle stray too far.

Getting into space requires launch services, and here Australian companies are emerging as well. One start-up is Melbourne-based Equatorial Launch Australia, headed up by Carley Scott, which is developing a commercial spaceport near Nhulunbuy, in the thinly-populated outback of Australia’s Northern Territory, on land leased from the indigenous Aborigines, the Yolngu. Being near the equator gives rockets an extra boost from Earth’s spin, allowing them to reach geostationary orbit with less fuel; meanwhile, the area’s low population density and vicinity to the ocean makes for safer launches and easier payload recovery. Its first launch contract is from NASA.

“They’re fantastic partners,” says Scott of the company’s collaboration with the Yolngu. “with such an ancient culture and ancient stories of the stars. To see those old stories mixing with the new will be really exciting.”

Another is Adelaide-based Southern Launch, which is chasing the market for polar orbits instead of around the equator; these are perfect for Earth-mapping, observation and reconnaissance. Industry analysts estimate 6,200 satellites will need to be launched in the next decade, at a cost of US$30 billion, with half the market looking for polar orbits.

Southern Launch have two sites: one for research rockets, located in the far west of South Australia on land leased from the Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation, where the first launch was a DEWC Systems suborbital rocket in December 2020 to test sensors the company is developing for the Royal Australian Air Force.

A map of Southern Launch’s spaceport at Whalers Way

The other is at Whalers Way, on the southernmost tip of Eyre Peninsula on a 1,200-hectare site where night launches — when they occur — will be visible from Adelaide. South Korea’s Perigee Aerospace has contracted to use the site for its Blue Whale rockets, designed to carry payloads of up to 50 kg for commercial, scientific and defence users who need polar orbits.

“The space launch market is fundamentally shifting away from big expensive rockets to smaller satellites, especially for ‘internet-of-things’ applications and Earth observation,” says chief executive Lloyd Damp. “And to do those operations globally, you need polar orbits so that, as the Earth spins on its axis, you get global coverage.”

MINING THE MOON with robots won’t be easy. For a start, the Moon is a harsh mistress: there’s no atmosphere, so at the poles temperatures range from 120˚C during the day to -232˚C at night, and radiation is three times higher than on Earth. As Apollo astronauts discovered, lunar dust is extremely fine and very abrasive, so moving parts need to be protected; while lubrication and cooling is tough, since most oils, cooling fluids and greases disintegrate or evaporate into the vacuum.

What’s more, mining robots need to be small to keep launch weights down, and not be too power hungry, since they rely on batteries and solar panels (which must be protected from the lunar dust kicked up by mining). And they have to operate long-term with minimal maintenance.

Artist’s concepts of mining operations on the Moon [Credit: Dennis Davidson and NASA]

It’s a hell of an engineering challenge. Which is why it’s so attractive to budding young researchers like Casanova. While doing a stint at the California Institute of Technology — where she got to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in 2017, home of the Mars rovers — she took part in a student competition to design a mining operation on the Moon. Although the technology has progressed further since, she stays abreast of new developments.

“First, the robot covers a site with an airtight cap, then drills a core into the regolith [the Moon’s ‘soil’, a mixture of fine dust and rocky debris],” she says, using her hands to sketch out the scene of a mining operation designed by Honeybee Robotics, a spacecraft equipment manufacturer in New York. “Instead of extracting that core, the robot heats it from within, and that sublimates the water ice into a gas, which it captures and stores in an onboard tank.”

The process is repeated again and again, until the tank is full, leaving a trail of pockmarks but very little waste and debris. “The benefit of Honeybee’s approach is that there’s not much handling of material, and it minimises dust plumes which, because you’re in a very low-gravity environment, can cause visibility problems,” she adds. And can obscure solar panels too.

“In our proposal [in 2017], we had the robots transporting the ore back to another unit nearby that turns some of the captured gas into propellant for the resupply shuttle, which then launches from the Moon to a depot in orbit like the Lunar Gateway,” she says. “There astronauts could use the water but also process the hydrogen and oxygen into more propellant.”

First, however, NASA will need to rethink how it does exploration. “When you say ‘exploration’ to a mining person, you’re talking about what a lay person would consider ‘prospecting’,” says UNSW’s Dempster. “You say ‘exploration’ to NASA, and they hear ‘science exploration’. These are two quite different things.”

To locate and extract viable deposits of water ice on the Moon or Mars, space agencies like NASA — and companies like SpaceX, who harbour long term plans for colonies on Mars — will need to do exploration in a way that prepares them for commercial mining.

An Illustration of NASA’s VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) on the surface of the Moon [Credit: Daniel Rutter/NASA Ames]
Illustration of astronauts riding a lunar rover while a VIPER robot searches for water ice on the Moon’s south pole [Credit: NASA]

“Most missions to the Moon are preliminary science-type missions, with scientific objectives of interest to geologists and the like,” adds Dempster. “But what they need to do is collect data as if they’re a commercial operation. You have to think about the ice as an ore body, and how you can define its extent and extractability.”

Prof. Serkan Saydam, a space mining specialist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney [Credit: UNSW]

ASA’s Clark agrees. Learning how to mine water ice in space “is the one of the most significant initial steps to be able to live on the surface of the Moon and Mars. Establishing a long-term lunar presence will also test how we undertake human exploration of Mars, and what we will need for long duration missions. That will be a primary focus of the Artemis mission.”

And that will bring many benefits back to Earth, says UNSW’s Saydam. “Mining in space — because it has to be much, much more efficient — forces us to completely rethink how it is done here on Earth. Achieving this would create spin-off technologies that would improve terrestrial operations, where it’s urgent that we reduce the environmental impacts of mining and make it more sustainable. That’s what really excites me.”

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Project Artemis aims to establish a permanent human presence on the moon in the 2020s [NASA]

NASA’s Artemis program aims to, from 2024, begin building a base camp on the Moon in stages using a Lunar Gateway station in orbit, crewed landers, robot rovers and human habitats.

Key components include the Artemis Base Camp, a long-term foothold for lunar exploration of the south pole that will initially house four astronauts for a week. As infrastructure for power, waste disposal, communications, radiation shielding and landing pads are added, the base would help test human survival in the harsh environment — especially during the long, cold lunar nights — and develop technologies to mine and manufacture water, fuel and oxygen.

The base would have a terrain vehicle for astronauts to roam the surface, and later a ‘Moon hopper’ that could fly further away and act as a live-in habitat for up to 45 days. Developing the habitats, mining operations and hoppers are seen as essential to perfect the technologies needed for eventual crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s and 2040s.

“After 20 years of continuously living in low-Earth orbit, we’re now ready for the next great challenge of space exploration — the development of a sustained presence on and around the Moon,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Artemis will … demonstrate key elements needed for the first human mission to Mars.”

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The map of the Moon below is based on data released by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Lunar Orbiter’s laser altimeter instrument. Centred on the Moon’s south pole, it shows elevation data overlain with estimated shade from sunlight. Amounts of water and hydroxyl (oxygen bonded with hydrogen) has been detected in these shadowed areas, as well as embedded on the surface lunar regolith.

“When we say, ‘water on the Moon’, we are not talking about lakes, oceans or even puddles,” says Carle Pieters, the instrument’s principal investigator at Brown University. “Water on the Moon means molecules of water and hydroxyl that interact with molecules of rock and dust specifically in the top millimetres of the moon’s surface.”

Topography of the permanently shaded regions on the Moon’s south pole [Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute]

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About the author

Wilson da Silva

Wilson da Silva is a science journalist in Sydney | www.wilsondasilva.com | https://bit.ly/3kIF1SO

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