The future of space exploration depends on humanity’s ability to extract resources in space because it won’t be possible to transport everything we need from Earth. To help prepare the way, a new ESA Space Resources Competition will support teams to develop services for mining on Earth that are also relevant to future use in space.
In-situ resource utilisation (ISRU) will be key to supplying future space explorers with food, shelter, energy, water and air. Although ISRU is a futuristic concept, it has great potential for accelerating key technologies on Earth.
Among these ISRU requirements is mining. Mining on Earth and in space share similar aims and face similar challenges. As a result, ESA Space Solutions will provide up to €200,000 per team through a new Space Resources Competition for the development of new mining services to be exploited on Earth that could then be used in space. Examples include minimising the use of water, optimising remote and autonomous operations, precision mining using agile machinery and use of renewable energy.
Using space resources for exploration could save between €54 billion and €135 billion up to 2045, while the space resources industry is expected to generate a market revenue of €73 billion to €170 billion, according to the Luxembourg Space Agency. The spill over benefits from the technology and knowledge gains are forecast to be around €2.5 billion over 50 years.1
Rita Rinaldo, Head of Partner-Led and Thematic Initiatives at ESA Space Solutions said: “We know that mining processes on Earth should be improved, not least to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Importantly, some of the challenges and opportunities for terrestrial mining are similar to the ones we will face in space. That’s why this competition focuses on development of new mining services for both environments, not solely for space.”
Reducing the use of water in mining
Reducing water usage has become a key sustainability challenge for mining operations. On Earth, mining uses considerable amounts of water, reducing the levels of ground water, depleting surface water and causing pollution to local rivers. In space, water is a rare and highly sought-after resource, so space mining equipment should not rely on water at all.
Perfecting remote and autonomous operations
Autonomous and remotely-controlled operations already play a part in digging, drilling, excavating and transporting materials, reducing risk and making it easier to do tasks in inaccessible locations. In space, using autonomous robots for prospecting, exploration and mining will limit the need for personnel and reduce the amount of supplies required. Total automation, with fully sensitive and adaptable systems, will benefit both.
Using light, agile and precise mining equipment
Mining often involves large machinery moving great volumes of earth to extract valuable materials, which is costly on Earth and will be impossible in space. In future, precise cutting, blasting and in-mine processing techniques could accurately target the ore and leave the waste behind, with small, agile mining machines used to extract the deposit economically and sustainably. New remote sensing techniques for prospecting and effective techniques for processing would also be beneficial.
Powering mining machinery using renewable energy
Mining operations have high energy demands but often take place in remote locations, where it is expensive to connect to power grids and in space that would be impossible. Solar could provide cost-efficient, reliable energy supplies and decrease emissions. For mining in space, solar arrays will need to be manoeuvrable, easy to deploy, efficient, light and robust, and ideally manufactured in space using safe materials readily available in situ.
More about ESA’s Space Resources Competition:
ESA’s Space Resources Competition opens on 19 April 2021 and has a closing date of 30 June 2021. For more details about the competition and how to apply, visit this page. The webinar to present this competition will take place at 11:00 CEST on 14 April 2021. To join the webinar, register here.
1Opportunities for Space Resources Utilization, Future Markets & Value Chains; Luxembourg Space Agency; December 2018
ABOUT ESA SPACE SOLUTIONS
ESA Space Solutions is the go to place for great business ideas involving space in all areas of society and economy. Our mission is to support entrepreneurs in Europe in the development of business using satellite applications and space technology to improve everyday life. ESA Space Solutions is designed to provide multiple entry points such as ESA Business Incubation Centres (ESA BICs), ESA Technology Broker Network, ESA Business Applications Ambassadors and ESA Business Applications programme. Funding typically ranges from €50k to €2M and supports everything from technology transfer, business incubation, Feasibility Studies to large-scale Demonstration Projects.