Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Future Mines Of Humanity

Dr Phil Harris is a Moon First space advocate and a published and acclaimed author. In his book Space Enterprise: Living and Working Offworld in the 21st Century, he goes into exquisite detail of the challenges and the bounties of industrializing the lunar surface.

In early January of this year Harris authored a special White House strategy paper [redistributed with permission] which recommended a pushing forward on the Vision For Space Exploration, or at least the Moon focused vision that came out of it. He makes it very clear that the reason to go back to the Moon is to get resources and reduce the national debt.

Now is the time to enlighten our nation's citizens of the vast resources to be tapped on the Moon. We could not only mine the lunar surface for valuable minerals and gems, but we could use its water and regolith to support lunar industrialization and settlement!

Those last two words are the only mention of settlement in the entire paper - so this is an economic argument and I feel the need to express my skepticism that such an economic argument can be seriously made at this time. Currently, the cheapest downmass from LEO costs $28,330 per kg. Although the price from the lunar surface would be much much higher than that, this is primarily due to a lack of in-space infrastructure. It's conceivable that strategically placed propellant depots with resupply from ISRU on the lunar surface could drastically reduce costs to a level feasible for lunar resource retrieval. More exotic cis-lunar infrastructure, such as Lunavators, could reduce those costs even more.

Harris also makes the argument that the Moon is the perfect place for all humanity's polluting industry, including power generation. This is an argument the Green movement could get behind: exporting the nasty side-effects of technological civilization to the Moon would leave the Earth to recover into a pristine reserve, without reducing the quality of life of the human population.

This argument is sound and reasonable. In response to the question: why go back to the Moon? Harris has a clear answer: industry and the wealth that flows from it (and settlement). In my words, the Moon is the future mine, and industrial park, of humanity.

Why Humans?

If you look at mining practices on Earth, you will see it is becoming more automated, as is all industry. In a sense, Rio Tinto and other mining companies are doing Moon-analog training in central Australia.

"It sounds crazy but quite a few of the problems in space and in remote mining can be similar," said Gipps, from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). "You don't necessarily want to have people there... so a lot of exploration on planets requires automated and remote operating systems, particularly automated."

Many self proclaimed robotics experts will insist that you'll always need humans nearby to fix the robots. I agree, but I define "nearby" differently to them. The Moon is, on average, 1.28 light seconds away from the Earth. The teleoperation workflow used to operate driverless trucks and trains, and sensor-fitted "smart drills" can also be used to operate repair robots. Highly articulate robots like Robonaut 2 can be on the Moon faster than a human return and can be operated to do any useful task.

These techniques are being perfected on Earth because they are economically valuable. Simply, it's cheaper to hire office workers in Perth to operate the equipment remotely than it is to attract and house on-site workers. If this is true for Australia then how could it ever not be true for the Moon?

If we want to make a sensible argument for why we should be sending humans into space, we need to base that argument around the future homes for humanity, not mines.


  1. I doubt lunar mining could occur with NO human presence however that is mere speculation on my part. But maybe 1 human per 50 Robonauts? 500 Robonauts? I could see that.

    Larger picture, I also concur with this:

    If we want to make a sensible argument for why we should be sending humans into space, we need to base that argument around the future homes for humanity, not mines.

    Years ago over at the New Mars forum I argued that the best definition of spacefaring was a species ability to safely and routinely conceive, bear and raise children at multiple celestial locations.

    Also, whether this is a goal our species should pursue is ultimately an existential question rather than a utilitarian question and thus the question "Should humanity attempt to become spacefaring" cannot be answered merely with logic.

    All of the above merely IMHO, as always.

  2. Care to speculate some more Bill? Why might physical presence be needed over telepresence? I can certainly imagine a dump truck or a drill failing, but I have trouble imagining an astronaut being able to fix it where a teleoperated robonaut couldn't. So I guess the argument becomes: who fixes the fixers? I can certainly imagine a single robonaut failing and being unable to right itself.. I could even imagine one robonaut failing and another failing while trying to repair the first, but I don't see that comedy of errors continuing for too long.

    Even if we allow for a certain number of faults which are not fixable by teleoperation this will merely reduce the throughput of the mine. At which point, an economic question will be asked: is it cheaper to send a human technician, or just send new hardware? I think sending new hardware will always be the cheaper option, and having a technician permanently on-site will always be considered too expensive.. unless, ya know, he and his family lives nearby.

  3. It seems to me, your question should become "where do we place the onus of offering proof" concerning human versus robotic lunar mining.

    I freely admit I cannot prove we will need people on the lunar surface to assist robots when doing lunar resource extraction. But I will also assert that it has not been sufficiently established that robots can do it without people on the lunar surface.

    Thus, the intellectually honest answer (IMHO) to the question of whether robots can do lunar ISRU extraction without humans is:

    "We don't know, yet."

    Therefore, the road forward (IMHO) is to deploy robots to begin lunar resource extraction (starting with prospecting sites) and yet keep open the option of human back-up and assistance if experience teaches that the robots cannot do it alone.

    In any event, having a team of back-up Robonauts at an EML Gateway ready for rapid deployment to a "trouble spot" anywhere on the lunar surface would seem useful. Especially if reusable lunar ascent modules would allow those Robonauts to return to EML-1 after assistance has been rendered.

  4. Sounds like a great plan Bill, thanks for the comments.

  5. Anonymous5:44 AM

    If there is any development on the Moon, it should happen on the far side.

    For millions of years humans and our ancestors have looked up and seen the same moon. For the next million years do we want our descendants to look up and see the scars of our expansion?

    There are many moons in our solar system but we only have one around our planet.

    The techniques discussed in the post can be used on any moon.

    I can guarantee that if the time comes where a mission is planned to strip mine the Moon, it wont just be the Greens that are upset.

  6. Anonymous, I say exactly the opposite. I'd rather people look up to the Moon and see civilization. Let it be a constant reminder that humanity has reached for the stars.