Sunday, February 24, 2013

Off-Earth Mining - lunar soil simulants, robots and heritage

Last week I spent a fascinating two days at the University of New South Wales' Off-Earth Mining Forum, organised by the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research. This forum united the twin strands of my professional expertise - cultural heritage management in the mining sector, and space archaeology.

Naturally, I talked about what the heritage issues are for lunar mining, particularly in light of the 2011 NASA guidelines. I argued that terrestrial processes of environmental and cultural heritage management need to be taken seriously in space, but that the lack of a well-developed concept of environment was an obstacle.

The first day, which I wasn't able to attend, was a workshop on lunar soil simulants. For many reasons, lunar regolith doesn't behave like soil or rock on Earth, and of course the use of robotic mining machinery is all dependent on the mechanical and physical properties of the stuff. Excitingly, Associate Professor Leonhard Bernold from UNSW has located an Australian source, and we were all given a vial (I do love a good gimmick).

Some of the jigsaw pieces are already under development: automated mining, water and volatile extraction, construction materials and processes. There are also some big gaps. Who are the investors? Who's buying the products? What about international law and the existing treaties? What about microgravity geology - that's going to be critical in asteroid mining.

One thing most people were clear about: lunar mining wasn't going to look like anything we are used to.

More information is available at the forum's website.