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Australian Mining Technology key for Lunar Economy

Australia’s mining sector has developed considerable skills in remote operations which may support human life on the moon. Today Australian mining companies have created the ability to run some of the largest terrestrial mines including the world’s largest iron ore mine in Pilbara, Western Australia from some 2,000 km away in the city of Perth. These skills drew the interest of NASA which led to the creation of the Australian Remote Operations for Space and Earth (AROSE) consortium. AROSE is designed to leverage Australian mining expertise for the benefit of the fast growing space sector.

As reported by S&P Global the public-private expansion of the space economy is moving quickly to exploit resources in space. However, the lunar economy faces considerable challenges as advanced terrestrial technology is often not applicable on the moon or in space. Mapping technologies used by terrestrial mining depend on being airborne and the existence of atmosphere. AROSE director Michelle Keegan highlighted that “systems like drones will not work in many off-world settings with little to no atmosphere and some scanners used to detect minerals will also be difficult or impossible to use”.

Austmine is an association of mining technology companies working with AROSE to encourage its members to submit ideas for low-weight technologies to assist in the mapping of the moon’s surface and sub-surface. Three companies will be chosen to discuss their ideas in California, USA with NASA on May 21-22, 2024.

NASA has identified three core challenges:

  • detecting and assessing minerals on the moon for off-world manufacturing,

  • reducing geological uncertainty through the fusion of multi-sensor platforms,

  • and off-world simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM).

Geological survey officials from the US, Canada, and Australia are also participating.

US Geological Survey (USGS) Director, Jonathan Stock, stated “we know that we’re going to want to find, measure, and build things”. He goes on to explain that before NASA tries to recreate these capabilities it's worth it to see what the Australians have been capable of doing thus far. Stock highlighted the importance of this technology in allowing humans to live and work off-world. 

Austmine’s Gibbs Stewart highlighted the current challenges including our technological inability to detect, measure, and map critical minerals on the moon such as zirconium, barium, fluorine, and sodium. These minerals are required for building all future infrastructure such as high-bandwidth optical cables needed for communication on the moon and in space in general. Gibbs further notes that the USGS and its Australian counterparts “want to understand what minerals are on the moon from a holistic perspective, with the ultimate aim to allow manufacturing in space”. 

Cooperation between NASA and the technological players of Australia’s mining sector began when Rio Tinto, a major Australian mining company, organized a meeting of NASA staff and Australian mining companies. Australia’s mining prowess underpinned its accession to the Artemis Accords in 2020. 

The US and Australia agreed in October of 2021 to cooperate on a lunar rover for a future moon mission with Rio Tinto providing “knowledge and technology transfers” of its terrestrial robotic and automation capabilities to support lunar rover development. Keegan was with Rio Tinto in the early 2000s when it developed the “mine of the future” concept pioneering its advanced remote mining technology. She went on to state “we’re talking about a future presence off-world where there is a lunar economy”. Keegan further stresses the importance of discovery and exploration and its parallels with mining stating: “the mining value chain starts at exploration and goes all the way through remediation. We hope that over time we’ll be able to showcase the capabilities we’ve built over many years that could be consolidated to create a presence in the future lunar economy”.


In Other News:

Commercial Space launches to remain tax free in the US

A US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official stated on April 10 that neither the agency or current US administration had any plans for the foreseeable future to levy taxes on commercial space launches, SpaceNews reports. 

Kelvin Coleman, an FAA official for commercial space transportation, told the press at the 39th Space Symposium that no such current plans to tax commercial launches exist. This comes on the heels of a New York Times report that the Biden administration was looking into levying a tax on commercial launch companies like SpaceX. However, the FAA official stated clearly that the budget proposal by the US President had no such tax initiative. 

The US has labeled space as a strategic domain of national security interest and has facilitated a growing and dynamic public-private space economy, with SpaceX and Blue Origin becoming household names. A continued low or no-tax regime in the space-related economy will allow the US to maintain a leading role in the sector, especially in the launch segment. 

Artemis Accords continue to grow

Sidus Space announces expansion in non-Earth imaging, payload, and data services

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Header Image: Artist's impression of the AROSE lunar rover. Image from the Australian Remote Operations in Space and on Earth (AROSE).



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