A team of researchers at the University of Arizona’s College of Engineering has launched a new project to advance space-mining methods with swarms of autonomous drones. The project received $500,000 in NASA funding, and the university received the funding through NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project Space Technology Artemis Research Initiative.
Moe Momayez is interim head of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering and the David & Edith Lowell chair of Mining and Geological Engineering.
“It's really exciting to be at the forefront of a new field,” said 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.“
Extracting Precious Earth Metals
The Giant Impact Hypothesis states that the Earth and the moon came from a common parent body. Because of this, scientists expect their chemical compositions to be relatively similar. Rare earth metals can be extracted by mining the moon’s surface, and these are used in technologies like smartphones and medical equipment. These metals include titanium, precious metals like gold and platinum, and helium-3, which is a stable helium isotope that is extremely rare on Earth. Helium-3 could be used to fuel nuclear power plants.
On Earth, miners must drill through the rock if they want to mine for ore embedded in it. Momayez developed an electrochemical process to drill through rock, and it is five times faster than any previous method. However, lunar mining is even more challenging.
“Here on Earth, we have an unlimited amount of energy to throw at breaking rocks,” he said. “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.”
Autonomous Robot Swarms
Autonomous robot swarms can help humans find new ways to mine lunar materials from a laboratory space on Earth.
Jekan Thanga is an associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering who is adapting a neuromorphic learning architecture technique. The technique, which was developed in his lab, is called the Human and Explainable Autonomous Robotic System (HEART).
The HEART system trains robots to work together on mining, excavation, and building tasks, and it improves robots’ collaboration skills.
The team will look to build and train the robots on Earth as practice, and they eventually want a fully autonomous swarm of robots that can operate without instructions from Earth. These robots would be used to mine materials and construct simple structures.
“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,” Thanga said. “By going through this process, we help perfect these artificial creatures whose job it is to do the mining tasks.”
According to the team, the robots could free up time for astronauts, enabling them to focus their efforts on other exciting aspects of space exploration.
“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,” Thanga said.