Australia’s mining expertise is at the forefront of a new era of space exploration that’s looking to the Moon and beyond.
By Wilson da Silva
SOPHIA CASANOVA HAS long been fascinated by the night sky, spending lazy summers in suburban Sydney during the late 1990s looking up at the stars. But it was at the age of 10, when her parents bought her a telescope, that she truly fell head over heels for all things space.
“That was the tipping point, really,” says the young geologist, recalling how she’d watch the Moon, equally haunted and entranced by its shifting phases. “It’s absolutely incredible to see through a telescope; you see so much detail.” Now a PhD student at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, she’s designing missions to prospect for, and eventually mine, water ice on the Moon and on Mars.
When she began her doctorate topic in 2017, it was considered science fiction. Now, she will likely have the pick of jobs in the booming space resources field around the world. That’s partly because the US space agency NASA has committed to return humans to the Moon during the 2020s under the Artemis program (see opposite), building a 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 return to Earth. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (ESA), which is headquartered in Paris, has announced plans to mine the Moon for water and oxygen from 2025.
Not surprisingly, China, too, is extremely active in this area. The China National Space Administration (CNSA) has already sent three rovers to the Moon, including the first to its far side, last year. And the nation is preparing four more robotic missions that will return samples from the lunar south pole, which is 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 crewed base during the 2030s.
There’s also a general boom underway in the global space industry that’s being driven by the falling cost of launches as well as a burgeoning demand for broadband, navigation services, satellite observation and even tourism. It’s a market that’s expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 5.6 per cent and is forecast to be worth US$558 billion by 2026.
“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,” Sophia says. “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 throughout the world. Victorian sheep-grazing strongholds Ballarat and Bendigo, for example, developed into cities. And Melbourne – little more than a country town of 23,000 people in 1851 – grew wealthy and prosperous, doubling in size three times by 1890. Gold booms also ensued in parts of California, Alaska and South Africa.
In space, water may play a similar role to gold. Surface liquid water cannot persist in space because it’s quickly dissipated by vacuum effects and sunlight. But 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 soil over much of the Moon’s surface.
Water, or H₂O, isn’t useful only for drinking or growing food in future human habitats. It can be split into its constituent molecules to create breathable air and oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel. That’s where the goldrush analogy arises.
Space is a very expensive business because Earth’s gravitational pull is so strong. A rocket has to travel at 29,000km/h just to reach orbit, so it burns a lot of fuel; in fact, about 90 per cent of a rocket’s launch weight is fuel. That’s why launches can cost US$2500–25,000 per kilogram – and that’s just to reach low Earth orbit, up to 2000km up.
You also need to carry the fuel that’s to be used once you get there, because there are no filling stations in space…yet. And you need even more fuel to go to geostationary orbit, where communications satellites are parked, and much more to reach the Moon or Mars. But what if there were filling stations in space, with fuel made on the Moon, where gravity is only 16.7 per cent that of Earth, or Mars, which has only 38 per cent of Earth’s gravity? Making fuel at either location once astronauts arrive would be more practical than carting it all the way from Earth.
Asteroids are another location option. These have almost no gravity at all. In fact, capturing an ice-rich asteroid and putting it into lunar orbit – so it can be mined for water, fuel and oxygen – has already been proposed. Suddenly, space travel, including missions to Mars, the Moon and even refuelling old satellites, becomes more feasible.
“If you’re able to provide fuel along the way, you are saving yourself an enormous cost,” explains Professor Andrew Dempster, director of UNSW’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research. “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 expertise in mining is proving to be very appealing to NASA. In February, Andrew and his colleague Professor Serkan Saydam, from UNSW’s School of Minerals and Energy Resources, met with senior NASA staff in Washington, DC to lay out plans for how to extract fuel, oxygen and water from the Moon. “It’s really happening quite fast now,” says Serkan, who is Sophia’s PhD advisor.
Together with Andrew, Serkan has been pioneering space-mining research in Australia. They have been collaborating with scientists around the world for the past five years, and between them have 12 doctoral students working on it. “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 makes them commercially attractive to investors,” Serkan explains.
Although the Artemis program was the focus of those meetings, there’s also other widespread interest. “Multiple space agencies are planning missions, and we’re seeing a lot of interest from private companies as well,” Serkan says. “The Moon is sexy again.”
FRONTING ADELAIDE’S North Terrace grand boulevard is the heritage-listed art deco McEwin Building. It once housed the old Royal Adelaide Hospital’s surgical block but is now home to the Australian Space Agency (ASA), created in 2018 to capitalise on the booming global space business.
Australia is late to the game: of the world’s 36 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, we alone did not have a space agency. Those other nations are already spending US$71 billion a year between them to capture a slice of the business.
With a small staff of 27, the 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 that have emerged in the past five years. Already Australia’s space industry employs almost 10,000 people and is worth $3.9 billion. The Space Industry Association of Australia has also identified 558 local groups that already have space industry capabilities.
Another geologist, Dr Megan Clark, is the first head of the ASA. Previously the first female chief executive of the CSIRO, Megan and her team have been busy, creating partnerships with NASA and the ESA, as well as their counterparts in France, Canada, the UK, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. The ASA has already signed agreements with large aerospace and satellite companies such as Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Thales and 10 others, including Australia’s largest oil and gas concern, Woodside Energy.
Along with a four-year, $41 million budget, the ASA has a $150 million kitty to help NASA advance its Artemis program. By showcasing Australia’s technical capability in such a high-profile space endeavour, it 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 per cent but the ASA plans to triple the size of the domestic industry to $12 billion by 2030 and create up to 20,000 local jobs.
“There are significant areas where Australia can contribute,” Megan says, offering the example of global geo-data company Fugro, based in Perth, which has pioneered the 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 set-up, which happens every day in a commercial operation, is so close to what we’ll 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.’
“If you look back 40 years, 80 per cent of investment in space was by government space agencies and defence. That’s completely flipped: now more than 75 per cent of investment is commercial.” Megan cites companies such as SpaceX, Kepler and Swarm that are 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 says.
Adjoining the ASA’s offices on its top floor is a mix of open-plan workspaces, breakout areas and meeting rooms for the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (CRC). This is a newly formed powerhouse of industry research, bringing together 17 universities, the CSIRO, Defence Science and Technology and 43 companies, including 30 start-ups and three global heavyweights. It’s snared $55 million in government funding and raised $190 million from industry.
In the lobby outside, a glass display wall highlights Australian space milestones, including a life-sized model of WRESAT, which, in 1967, became the first Australian satellite and made us only the fourth nation to launch one from its own territory (after Russia, the USA and France). Sadly, that early lead was abandoned, and it took 31 years for the next Australian satellite to fly – the 1998 launch of WESTPAC-1, formerly known as WPLTN-1, a soccer ball–sized research satellite sent up by the Russians.
That changed in 2017, when Australia sent up four mini-satellite CubeSats. Built with off-the-shelf parts and cheap but powerful computer chips made possible by smartphone technology, CubeSats have a dizzying variety of uses, from disaster response to climate monitoring. They can also 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 Andy Koronios, CEO 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 a thousand times more computing power in a small package.”
That’s changed the equation for Australia, he says: “We have a strong pedigree and long history in space with excellent capabilities in instrumentation and communications. But that research hasn’t 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 for monitoring bushfires or predicting crop yields, Australians have long relied on buying time on other people’s satellites.
Despite Australia’s large size and technological prowess, the nation has very little presence in space. “But that’s now changing,” Andy says. He envisions Australian satellite fleets that map soil moisture on farms and national parks, detect illegal fishing vessels, predict flood paths based on topography and track bushfires in real time, and even cattle fitted with small health-monitoring sensors. Equipped with artificial intelligence, satellites could send alerts when pastures need watering, or when cattle stray.
Getting into space requires launch services, and here Australian companies are emerging too. One start-up is Melbourne-based Equatorial Launch Australia, headed by Carley Scott. It’s developing a commercial spaceport near Nhulunbuy, in the Northern Territory, on land leased from Yolngu traditional owners.
“They’re fantastic partners, with an ancient culture and ancient stories of the stars,” Carley says about the Yolngu. “To see those old stories mixing with new will be really exciting.” Being near the Equator gives rockets an extra boost from Earth’s spin, reaching geostationary orbit with less fuel. The area’s low population and proximity to the ocean also makes for safer launches and easier payload recovery. Its first order is from NASA.
Adelaide-based start-up Southern Launch is chasing the market for polar, rather than equatorial, orbits. These are ideal for Earth-mapping, observation and reconnaissance. Industry analysts estimate 6200 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 has two sites – one for research rockets, in South Australia’s far west on land leased from the Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation. There the first launch will be for electronic warfare company DEWC Systems of a suborbital rocket to test sensors the company is developing for the Royal Australian Air Force.
The other site is 1200ha at Whalers Way, on the Eyre Peninsula, where night launches 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 50kg for commercial, scientific and defence users needing 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,” explains Lloyd Damp, CEO of Southern Launch. “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. First, it has no atmosphere, so temperatures at its poles range from 120°C during the day to –232°C at night, and radiation is three times higher than on Earth. Also, as Apollo astronauts discovered, lunar dust is extremely fine and very abrasive, so moving parts need protection. But lubrication and cooling is tough because most oils, cooling fluids and greases disintegrate or evaporate into the vacuum of space.
What’s more, mining robots need to be small to keep launch weights down, and not be too power hungry, bec-ause they rely on batteries and solar panels, which will need to be protected from the lunar dust kicked up by mining. They also have to operate long term with minimal maintenance.
It’s a huge engineering challenge, which is why it’s so attractive to young researchers such as Sophia Casanova. While doing a stint at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where in 2017 she got to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, home of the Mars rovers, Sophia 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 ideas.
“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 New York-based spacecraft equipment manufacturer. “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 until the tank is full, leaving a trail of pockmarks but very little waste and debris. “The benefit of Honeybee’s approach is 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,” Sophia adds. “In our  proposal, we had robots transporting 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. There astronauts could use the water but also process the hydrogen and oxygen into more propellant.”
First, NASA will need to rethink exploration. “When you say ‘exploration’ to a mining person, you’re talking about what a lay person would consider ‘prospecting’,” says UNSW’s Andrew Dempster. “You say ‘exploration’ to NASA, and they hear ‘science exploration’. These are two quite different things.”
To locate and extract viable water ice deposits on the Moon or on Mars, space agencies and companies with long-term plans for colonies on Mars will need to do exploration in a way that prepares them for mining. “Most missions to the Moon are preliminary science-type missions, with scientific objectives of interest to geologists and the like,” Andrew adds. “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.”
The ASA’s Megan Clark agrees, explaining that learning how to mine water ice in space “is one of the most significant initial steps to be able to live on the surface of the Moon and of 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 Serkan Saydam. “Mining in space – because it has to be much, much more efficient – forces us to completely rethink how it’s 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.”