Scientists plan new method of Moon mining
Harvesting lunar resources using autonomous robot swarms Metal Tech News - September 15, 2021
Last updated 9/21/2021 at 1:59pm
A research team at the University of Arizona recently received $500,000 in NASA funding for a project to advance space mining methods through the use of autonomous robots, swarms of them.
"It's really exciting to be at the forefront of a new field," said interim head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering, as well as the David & Edith Lowell Chair in Mining and Geological Engineering Moe Momayez. "I remember watching TV shows as a kid, like 'Space: 1999,' which is all about bases on the Moon. Here we are in 2021, and we're talking about colonizing the Moon."
To mine for ore embedded in rock on Earth, miners need to drill through the rock, which is one of Momayez's specialties, by developing an electrochemical process to drill through rock five times faster than any other method. However, lunar mining presents a different world of challenges.
"Here on Earth, we have an unlimited amount of energy to throw at breaking rocks," said Momayez. "On the Moon, you have to be a lot more conservative. For example, to break rocks, we use a lot of water, and that's something we won't have on the Moon. So, we need new processes, new techniques. The most efficient way to break rocks on Earth is through blasting, and nobody has ever set off a blast on the Moon."
With scientists beginning to more seriously consider constructing bases on celestial bodies such as the Moon, the idea of space mining has been quickly growing in popularity; therefore, finding the best way to mine lunar materials from a lab on Earth is a tall order for current technologies, hence autonomous swarms.
An associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at UArizona, Jekan Thanga, has been developing a neuromorphic learning architecture technique which he calls the Human and Explainable Autonomous Robotic System, or HEART.
HEART will not only train robots to work together on mining, excavation, and even building tasks, but it will hopefully be able to enable them to improve their collaboration skills over time.
"In a sense, we're like farmers. We're breeding talent out of these creatures, or a whole family of creatures to do certain tasks," said Thanga. "By going through this process, we help perfect these artificial creatures whose job it is to do the mining tasks."
The team plans to build and train the robots on Earth to get some practice in, while ultimately, the researchers envision a fully autonomous swarm of robots that doesn't need to receive instructions from Earth to mine materials and construct simple structures.
"The idea is to have the robots build, set things up and do all the dirty, boring, dangerous stuff, so the astronauts can do the more interesting stuff," added Thanga.
The excitement is not shared by them alone, as one of the reasons Momayez and Thanga decided to pursue this venture is that undergraduate students are becoming more and more interested in this field.
"Every time I got out and talk about space exploration, there's really a storm of students who are enthusiastic about mining," continued Thanga. "Seeing all these students inspired to get involved has been a big drive."
Thanga's ASTEROIDS Laboratory runs a NASA-funded undergraduate research and education program that involves students spending a year leading their own research projects.
Additionally, as a Hispanic-serving institute, the school was eligible to receive the latest funding through NASA's Minority University Research and Education Project Space Technology Artemis Research Initiative.
With the new funding, Momayez and Thanga intend to add a module to the program focused on space mining. Students will learn about both autonomous robot swarms and excavation techniques – in the classroom, in the lab, and even in the university's student-run San Xavier Mine.
"They can test their robots at the mine, they can excavate, they can drill, they can blast," Momayez finished. "And with the establishment of the new School of Mining and Mineral Resources, we hope to get more students from all over the world involved in mining."