Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"To mine the stars, hire a mining engineer"

Astrobotic Technology, a competitor for the Google Lunar X-Prize, is engaged in a two-year contract with NASA to develop a prototype robotic excavator to recover water and methane near the Moon’s north pole. Hydrogen compounds and other volatiles mined from the Moon can be transformed for life support and fuel would otherwise continue to be very expensive to transport beyond Earth's atmosphere [Astrobotic Technologies, Inc.].
George Leopold

There’s been a lot of talking lately about mining asteroids for precious metals like platinum. A group of space entrepreneurs recently announced the formation of a company called Planetary Resources to pursue that ambitious goal.

We asked a former miner and NASA engineer who now writes about subjects like mining the moon whether something as audacious as asteroid mining makes any sense.

 “I looked [at Planetary Resources’] advisory board, and I did not see a single mining engineer. That’s a big mistake,” warns Homer Hickam, whose escape from the coal mines of West Virginia to a career at NASA was chronicled in his 1998 book, Rocket Boys, and the 1999 film, “October Sky.”


Working below the Earth’s surface, then training shuttle astronauts to work in space gives Hickam a unique perspective on the question of space mining and whether we have the technology to actually do it. “When you start digging in the dirt – I don’t care if it’s on an asteroid, or the moon or West Virginia – you’d better have a mining engineer on board,” Hickam says. “It’s not as simple as you think it is.”

Even if an asteroid contained huge deposits of valuable metals like platinum or nickel, Hickam continues, “How are you going to carve that [metal] out of there? You are going to create a huge amount of debris in the process. And asteroids essentially have no gravity so it’s all going to go flying around.”

Instead, Hickam advocates mining the moon first for rare elements like Helium-3 that could potentially be used as fuel in fusion reactors. “At least you’ve got some gravity there,” he notes.

Read the full article, HERE.

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