Canada’s mining sector brainstorms lunar resource extraction

blue earth seen from the moon surface when mining will one day take place
The moon’s north pole contains an estimated 60 million tonnes of water is available for mining.

The unique skill sets of Canada’s mining industry may someday help propel space exploration beyond the Earth’s moon. 

Recently, the Sudbury, Ontario-based Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) hosted a webinar to explain the opportunity and challenges in extracting resources on the moon. 

“Mining and mineral resource exploration and taking advantage of resources on the moon is going to happen for sure in the very short term,” said Chamirai Nyabeze, Vice President of Business Development and Commercialization at CEMI. 

Artemis Accords

In 2020, Canada signed the Artemis Accords, a set of principles for cooperation in deep space exploration, including In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) activities.

As part of the Artemis II mission, Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen will join a crewed lunar fly-by mission in late 2024. 

The following year, the Artemis III mission will land astronauts on the moon as part of an initial plan to eventually establish an Artemis Base Camp on the lunar surface. 

“ISRU is really expected to use local resources to extend those missions and it will also reduce the cost of the missions by reducing the need for resupply from Earth,” said Mathieu Giguère, Planning Analyst with the Canadian Space Agency

Water extraction

The prevalent plan is to extract water from the fine dust deposits found in the moon’s north and south poles and separate it into hydrogen and oxygen. 

The hydrogen would be used as fuel to allow space travel beyond the moon, while the oxygen would be utilized to sustain life. 

At the moon’s north pole alone, an estimated 60 million tonnes of water is available for extraction. 

“If we convert all of that water into shuttle fuel, we could launch a shuttle per day for more than 2,000 years, just with the water that’s at the north pole,” said Dale Boucher, ISRU and Space Mining Consultant. “There’s a lot of water on the moon. It’s not as dry as we thought it would be.” 

The process for separating water into hydrogen and oxygen is simple. Known as electrolysis, the process uses DC voltage for the separation. 

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“I did it as a high school experiment, most of you probably have seen that done. It’s a very simple process to crack water into hydrogen and oxygen,” Boucher said. 

The challenge lies within the scale of extraction required to produce the required amount of hydrogen as the dust has an average water concentration of about 5 per cent. 

“It cannot be done with just one little science experiment,” Boucher said. “It really needs some well thought out process to be able to achieve these results.”

Canadian mining expertise

Giguère explained there is potential for mining companies to adapt their current technologies for use in extracting lunar ice. 

“There are similarities between terrestrial mining and lunar ISRU,” he said. “Canada’s particular expertise in remote and isolated mining supports increased potential for this crossover.”

While mining companies willingness to contribute to the ISRU plan is critical to boosting Canada’s leadership role in space exploration, Giguère explained developing the methods for lunar extraction would also increase mining competitiveness through innovation and create opportunities for new markets and collaboration.

“Those should be words that are very appealing to the mining sector,” he said. “We tend to believe that Canada is well positioned to seize those future opportunities because of its long-standing heritage of its mining industry.”

Reimagining mining equipment

An artistic interpretation of mining equipment on the moon

When talking about the moon’s resources, CEMI CEO Douglas Morrison said he puts the word “mining” in quotes. 

“I think it’s very unlikely that we’re actually going to use the kinds of mining techniques that I’m familiar with,” Morrison said. “We will certainly be using extraction efforts, but the kind of equipment that we use on Earth today is almost certainly not going to be what we use on the moon.”

Temperatures on the moon’s surface is one of several barriers. Depending on location, the moon’s temperature varies from 120C to -250C. Cost is another factor. During the Apollo missions in the 1970s, an astronaut cost about $1 million an hour. 

“Unlike some of the movies that we’ve all seen, we’re not sending miners, and we’re not sending drillers to go do drilling and extraction techniques,” Morrison said. “As we do know, that is a fantasy. And we shouldn’t be at all misled by that fantasy.”

Cost, and a lack of oxygen, also eliminates the potential for diesel equipment as an option.

“We’re not going to put a D8 on the moon, it’s just too big and it won’t operate. We’re not going to put a three-yard scoop or even a one-yard scoop on the moon. It just weighs too much, and the support required to keep it running is just too big,” Boucher said. 

Solar is also not an option, as the potential mining sites are in permanently shadowed regions and receive about two days of indirect sunlight per month. 

“How do you put megawatts of energy into this kind of operation without solar cells? We haven’t figured out if that’s possible,” Boucher said. “But it’s kind of the same problem that have here in the mining industry. How do you get a significant concentration of power into something like the Ring of Fire?”

Boucher and Morrison agree the equipment that will be developed for lunar extraction will be small, effective and completely autonomous.

“We need to think about the basic principles of the mining aspect, the geotechnical and the geochemistry, that we understand in the mining industry very well. And how do we start adapting this to work in space?” Boucher said.