To Infinity And Beyond: Quest For Resources Enters Its Space Age

“There is no place on earth as desolate as what I was viewing in those first moments on the Lunar Surface,” said Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the Moon. By comparison, Mars with its thin atmosphere, polar ice caps and red soil, seems almost inviting. Yet it is still far more alien and hostile than anywhere in the deserts of the Empty Quarter or the Sahara. On July 16, the UAE announced its ambition of launching a mission to Mars by 2021, and setting up the national space agency. Coming amid renewed global interest in space exploration, this programme will hopefully inspire a new generation of Emirati scientists and engineers. These goals contrast with grander plans elsewhere. At a time of hyperbole over energy and resources shortages on Earth, people are inspired to scan the infinity of space for solutions. One concept is to mine the Moon for helium-3, which is gradually deposited in lunar soil by the solar wind. This isotope could be used in fusion reactors to generate zero-carbon energy with almost no nuclear waste – just 140 tonnes of helium-3 could power the world for a year, the equivalent of 13 billion tonnes of oil. But the Moon’s helium-3 is present only in tiny quantities, which would require mining almost 3 billion tonnes of lunar rock per year – the size of the entire Chinese coal industry. The world’s most advanced fusion reactor pilot, ITER in France, is not expected to start operations until 2027, and it runs not on helium-3, but on isotopes of hydrogen easily extracted from seawater. Space-based solar power has also attracted attention. Orbiting solar panels, transmitting power to receiving stations on Earth via microwave beams, would receive much higher light intensity, not filtered by the Earth’s atmosphere, and they could be in daylight 99 per cent of the time. Such solar systems suffer, though, from problems of maintenance, and the impact of space junk and micro-meteorites. Most seriously, putting their components in orbit costs $10,000 or more per kilogramme – making them enormously expensive unless launch costs come down. This suggests a third idea – mining asteroids for materials and rare elements, and perhaps building systems in space itself. In April 2012 – backed by the Google chief executive Larry Page and executive chairman Eric Schmidt; the Aliens director James Cameron; and the British entrepreneur Richard Branson – Planetary Resources launched, metaphorically if not literally. The venture planned to use low-cost robotic spacecraft to harvest asteroids for platinum, gold, nickel, iron and other metals, as well as water for future space expeditions and for fuelling satellites. Space mining faces the challenges of costs. It is difficult enough to run a mine reliably in the Australian outback, let alone the interplanetary vacuum. The world is not short of base metals such as iron and cobalt, even if new deposits are remote, low-grade or deep. A large new source of a precious metal such as platinum or palladium would unlock many uses, for example in fuel cells and catalysts. But then it would have to be cheap – undercutting the economics of the asteroid mining venture. These dreams of space cornucopia may one day be attainable – but they appear far-off. By challenging our ingenuity, though, we can give science back the thrill and glamour it had during the Apollo missions in the 1960s. The students fixing their eyes on the stars today are the scientists who tomorrow will create breakthroughs in solar power, nuclear energy, minerals, ultralight materials and robotics. The desolation of the Moon or Mars contrasts with the natural and human riches of the Earth. Maybe the space programme’s true impact is not the resources it may find in outer space, but the innovation it can inspire on the ground.

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