Mining on the Moon

Fly-in, fly-out... of space

IT IS a new form of fly-in, fly-out mining, but not as you know it.

A group of speakers and guests are this week in Sydney discussing the possibility of space mining, dispatching robots beyond our atmosphere in an effort to harness the jewels from other worlds.

The mind-bending concept is the centrepiece of the University of New South Wales' three-day Off-Earth Mining Forum which began on Tuesday.

UNSW has brought together speakers from NASA, robotic firms, the Japanese Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science and Optus Satellite and UNSW's own Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research.

The goal is for companies to prospect and mine precious materials not just from the moon, but from asteroids which are rich in gold, platinum and diamond.

ACSER director and forum organiser Professor Andrew Dempster said Helium-3, a powerful but rare form of energy was comparatively abundant on the moon.

By converting this raw energy into fuel for machines, the moon would become something of a launch pad for crafts to explore, prospect and mine passing asteroids.

Inside the University of New South Wales
Inside the University of New South Wales "Virtual Reality Mine Simulator". A forum on space mining is being held this week at the university. UNSW

Mr Dempster said there were some small similarities between mining in space and mining in the Pilbara or Western Queensland.

"A lot of that same philosophy is applicable to mining in space," he said.

"The machines and methods of mining might be different, but the drive would be the same."

The forum discussions so far have ranged from loopholes in space law that might allow mining, to best ways for machines to grip an asteroid where gravity is non-existent.

"We know there are a lot of precious things that find their way into an asteroid, the amount of gold, platinum, diamond is greater than on earth," Mr Dempster said.

He said he had heard of no concern over environmental impacts, because if anything, it would lessen the amount of mining here on earth.

Plus, the moon and passing asteroids had no real environment to destroy.

A Greenpeace spokeswoman said the group had no formal policy on beyond-Earth mining, but said it was not something it would be likely to endorse.

"We think there are enough problems with mining practices on earth," she said.

"It'd be better to use our time working on how to do that rather than working out how to get to the stars to exploit them."

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