Lunar lunacy or resource landfall? Moon mining is on the horizon and Australia may be the best placed nation to take advantage.
Earlier this month, a collection of engineers, scientists and industry specialists gathered at the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) forum to discuss the viability of mining on the moon.
Central to the SIAA discussion was the potential for Australia to lead the charge globally, with the forum’s speakers highlighting Australia’s unique suitability for the out of atmosphere resource venture.
“Australia has a natural advantage for off-Earth mining,” commented Professor Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales.
“We have some of the very best mining research, technology and automation tools in the world, and the largest mining companies.
“While overseas teams have been looking at solving some of the problems behind space mining, our project wants to examine how we could actually get this done, firstly from a practical engineering point of view, but also closing a viable business case.”
The same week the SIAA held its forum, Swiss Multinational Investment Bank UBS published a report on space tourism suggesting the industry would grow to US$805 billion by 2030.
In its analysis of the infrastructure requirements for the space tourism boom, the UBS report suggested that “the employment of advanced robotics to build infrastructure and habitats on moons and planets for long-term missions ahead of manned space missions will lay the foundations for future potential space-based manufacturing.”
It is this need for advanced robotics, specifically for the building of space mining infrastructure, that the SIAA has earmarked as an Australian opportunity.
So what resources are on the moon?
The opening lines of a 2018 study examining the commercialisation of lunar propellants states that “aside from Earth, the inner solar system is like a vast desert where water and other volatiles are scarce.”
This reality is the crux of the moon’s value.
Water, while extremely common on earth, is intensely scarce in space. Beyond its crucial role in animal and plant survival, water can be converted into oxygen and hydrogen, both of which can be used for rocket fuel.
Another significant resource housed in large quantities on the moon was Helium-3. The non-radioactive isotope can be thought of as nuclear fusion fuel, believed by some scientists to be a safe energy source for future humans.
The final major resource on the moon are rare earth metals, fifteen of which can be found in varying quantities on the lunar surface. Playing a crucial role in the manufacturing of a variety of advanced technologies, many of which are used in space.
Which listed players are best placed to benefit?
The large caps
Unsurprisingly, the best placed players for moon expansion are those leading the mining industry.
Australia’s expertise and history as a mining nation has made the ASX home to some of the world’s largest mining and mining supply companies: Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO), BHP Group (ASX:BHP), Ausdrill (ASX:ASL), Northern Star (ASX:NSL) and South32 (ASX:S32).
Leading the race to the moon is Rio Tinto, having made headlines with its autonomous drill rigs, trucks and driverless trains in the Pilbara.
Megan Clark, a current Rio Tinto board member, former CSIRO head and now leader of the newly minted Australian Space Agency, commented on the mining giant’s lunar ambitions.
“Rio Tinto is developing autonomous drilling and that’s the sort of thing you will need to do on Mars and on the moon,” Ms Clark says.
“While we’re drilling for iron ore in the Pilbara, on the moon they might be looking for basic resources to survive like soils, water and oxygen.”
The small caps
As highlighted by Rio Tinto’s burgeoning interest, automation and remote control technologies will be crucial to mining the moon.
Kleos, a small cap nanosatellite company, has shown interest in deploying its tech to assist in the likely-robotic mining of the moon.
The company is in the process of developing precision robotics to be used for the manufacturing of tools and replacement parts in space. Kleos believes the reduced costs of in-orbit manufacturing and repair work will be crucial to the development of infrastructure in space.
Electro Optic Systems Holdings Limited (ASX: EOS)
EOS is another small cap Australian technology company with a potential interest in moon mining.
The company produces a variety of space technologies, namely satellite software, lasers, electronics, optronics, gimbals, telescopes and beam directors, and precision mechanisms
Amongst EOS’ wide offering are a variety of technologies that perform surveillance, scanning and monitoring, all of which have potential applications for assisting in the development of automated lunar mine sites.
The company also offers orbit defense technologies focused on shielding space infrastructure from space debris, which will become an increasing problem as more and more infrastructure enters the earth and lunar orbit.
Sky and Space Global (ASX:SAS)
Sky and Space is a London based ASX company aiming to launch a constellation nano-satellites into Low Earth orbit over the equator to help provide data coverage and communications networks to under-serviced regions along the equatorial belt.
The company could feasibly deploy this same technology into a low orbit over the moon, with the aim of providing communications and data to miners and their equipment.
With a potential booming industry on the horizon and the right tools to lead the charge, Australian companies will have to keep an eye out for further developments in the moon mining space, or in this case, outer-space.
This content does not constitute financial product advice. You should consider obtaining independent advice before making any financial decisions.
Don’t miss a thing, subscribe now