Tag Archives: mars

Mining the skies

Just three kilometres in diameter, asteroid 1986DA is a fairly tiny affair by astronomical standards. Yet it contains astonishing wealth. Using radar, astronomers have discovered 1986DA is mainly made up of iron and nickel.

“Essentially, it is a ball of naturally occurring stainless steel,” says Serkan Saydam, a UNSW expert on the mining of off-Earth objects.

Asteroid 1986DA is also estimated to contain more than 10,000 tonnes of gold and 100,000 tonnes of platinum.

The prospect of such mineral riches excites some entrepreneurs. These visionaries picture a fleet of robot spaceships crossing the Solar System to mine its interplanetary resources. This would also open worlds like the Moon and Mars to human colonisation.

With its vast mining experience, Australia is keen to ensure it is in the vanguard of these operations. Hence the appointment of Saydam as an associate professor of mining at UNSW, where he is putting together a small team of off-Earth mining experts. The work of Saydam’s honours student Georgia Craig on asteroid 1986DA highlights the importance of the careful planning that will be needed in future – and the problems that lie ahead.

Named after the year in which it was discovered, asteroid 1986DA orbits the Sun 75 million kilometres from Earth and is rated by the International Astronomical Union as a Near Earth Object, or NEO. But calculations by Saydam show that 1986DA is still too remote to be mined economically. On the other hand, his research suggests that if the asteroid were half its current distance from Earth, it could be viable to exploit.

That is good news because there are about two million other near-Earth asteroids orbiting the Sun. If we can find a better-placed candidate, it could become a target for mining operations. Hence the activities of companies like Planetary Resources (see ‘Frontier horizon’, above) which is preparing to carry out detailed surveys of NEOs to find one best suited for mining operations.

Asteroids like 1986DA are not the only targets for future missions. Other types of asteroids contain far less mineral wealth, but much more water. That could be crucial, says Saydam. “Water will be our prime source of fuel in space, and finding sources will be a priority. Hydrolysis of water produces hydrogen and oxygen, which can be burned together as fuel, and used in space shuttles and/or satellites. To put it bluntly: water is going to be the currency of space.”

Worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has a vast ocean below its frozen surface, and Saturn’s tiny Enceladus, which vents water into space, would be good targets but are too remote.

“We will have to find water much nearer to home, and given that we have to start somewhere, Mars is the logical place to begin our hunt for water on another world,” says Sophia Casanova, a geologist and PhD candidate who is now studying off-Earth mining at UNSW. “Finding and extracting water will be crucial for setting up colonies there.”

The trouble is that, while the poles of Mars have ice, they are too cold and inhospitable to provide homes for early colonists. By contrast, Mars’s equatorial region is warmer and more amenable but lacks water – at least on the surface. “That means we will have to seek it underground,” says Casanova, whose research is now focused on finding ways to pinpoint rich deposits of clays and hydrate deposits at lower latitudes on Mars. “There could be some kind of artesian wells, but we have no evidence of their existence as yet. So we will probably have to use hydrate minerals.”

But how can we extract water from rocks? Casanova explains: “You could put your minerals in a chamber and heat them to extract the water. Alternatively, you could use microwave generators that heat the underground to break up the rocks and release the water that way.”

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Saydam’s team has developed models to evaluate multiple off-Earth mining scenarios.

Another practical problem concerns the use of seismic detectors. On Earth, a charge is set off and seismic waves that bounce off subterranean deposits reveal their presence. But as a tool for exploring other worlds, the technique is poorly developed. “Some seismic measurements were taken of the Moon by Apollo astronauts, and that’s about it,” says Michael Dello-Iacovo, a former geophysicist and now a PhD candidate at UNSW. “An early Mars lander was designed to do that but crashed. Now the Mars InSight Mission is being prepared to carry out seismic studies but will not be launched until 2018.”

Seismic waves may behave very differently on asteroids or other planets, says Dello-Iacovo. “There will be no atmosphere, and virtually no gravity, and we have no idea how that will affect seismic wave behaviours. My research is aimed at tackling that problem,” adds Dello-Iacovo, who is spending a year at JPL working on methods for improving our understanding of asteroid interiors.

“We still don’t know if asteroids have solid cores or are just piles of rubble held together loosely,” Dello-Iacovo says. “If the latter, they might break apart if only a small force is applied to them during a mining operation.”

A host of ethical and legal issues also need to be overcome, says Saydam. “What treaties are we going to have to set up to exploit space? And what would happen if we suddenly turned a rare metal like platinum into a commonplace one by bringing huge chunks back to Earth? We could trigger a crash in international metal markets.

“On the other hand, off-Earth mining has the potential to trigger great expansion in the global economy and we must make sure that Australia can influence that through its research capabilities. We also need to make sure we have trained manpower to take advantage of this great adventure.”

– Robin McKie

Winning the space race

Dr Abigail Allwood is an earth science alumnus from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) who took her research to NASA – where she now works in planetary chemistry and astrobiology as the first woman and the first Australian to lead a project team for life on Mars.

This inspiring video explores Allwood’s return home, and her six-day tour travelling around Queensland sharing her Mars research to students and the public.

During her tour, Allwood participated in ten educational events, mostly based at QUT, including a panel discussion with esteemed journalist Robyn Williams from Radio National in Sydney.

“Space exploration is one of the greatest sources of inspiration for young minds.” 

The themes of Allwood’s presentations cover how space can be a gateway fascination for young people, encouraging them into scientific enquiry. Her presentations also describe how doing an earth science degree led to her becoming an astrobiologist at NASA. And of course, her talks cover the possibility of finding life on Mars…

Allwood gave presentations to high school and research students, describing her atypical journey from studying geology in Australia to working on the Mars mission with NASA.

– Jesse Hawley

Out of this world

The secrets of Earth, the Moon and Mars are being uncovered by detailed studies of zircon crystals in ancient rocks.

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Simon Wilde and Associate Professor Alexander Nemchin, with colleagues from Curtin’s Department of Applied Geology, undertake in situ isotopic analyses of zircons and other chemically complex materials.

To do this they use Curtin’s two Sensitive High Resolution Ion Micro Probes (SHRIMPs) in the John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research.

“The oldest zircons on Earth, the Moon and Mars – which are all close to 4.4 billion years old – have been dated using the Curtin SHRIMPs,” says SHRIMP Manager Dr Allen Kennedy.

While Wilde primarily focuses on terrestrial zircons, Nemchin – who divides his time between Curtin and the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm – has analysed zircons from the Moon and Mars.

“Previous research in the seventies discovered abundant zircon in many lunar samples delivered by the Apollo missions,” Nemchin says. “So we used zircon samples from the Moon to gain a better understanding of how to interpret our terrestrial zircon data.”

The results were illuminating: “We found the currently oldest known zircon on the Moon with an age of 4.417 billion years
– which provides the youngest limit to the formation of the lunar magma ocean.” This vast ‘ocean’ of partially melted rock
is thought to have swamped the Moon shortly after it formed.

In addition, Nemchin and his international collaborators, including NASA, identified a series of features in zircon grains that allow major lunar impact events to be dated.

They have also developed novel methods of analysing phosphates from the Moon with a precision close to a few million years. “Together, this resulted in our questioning of the terminal lunar cataclysm hypothesis.”

Out of this world embed 300
Zircon research by a team at the John De Laeter Centre for Isotope Research found that dramatic changes on Mars 1.7 billion years ago resulted in its barren landscape today.

Also known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, the lunar cataclysm concept was put forward in the 1970s. It suggests that asteroids barraged the Moon for a short time approximately 3.9 billion
years ago, causing much of the cratering seen today on the lunar surface and having geological consequences for Earth.

Nemchin’s results instead suggest multiple cataclysmic spikes of impacts occurred throughout the history of the Solar System, separated by relatively quiet periods.

The team also dated zircon found in an ancient Martian meteorite known as Black Beauty, which was discovered in the Sahara Desert in 2011 by Bedouin tribesmen.

After they determined that the meteorite’s zircon crystals were 4.43 billion years old, the team took precise measurements that provided additional ideas about how the Martian atmosphere has changed through time.

They found that water on Mars was more abundant when the crystals formed, but something dramatically changed prior to 1.7 billion years ago, leaving the barren Martian desert that persists to this day.

– Ben Skuse