GOLDEN, Colo. (CN) – Unlike terrestrial mining, extracting resources in space means confronting unique technical challenges, energy limitations, extreme temperatures and microgravity.
But planning how to best venture into uncharted territory is nothing new for Dr. Angel Abbud-Madrid, founder of the world’s first space resources degree program at the Colorado School of Mines.
Classes begin Aug. 20 for the first 35 students enrolled in the program. With courses held online, students around the world can earn a post-baccalaureate certificate, master’s degree, or doctorate focused on finding and pulling resources from space.
Many asteroids and nearby planets contain rare platinum-group metals and industrial metals like iron and nickel that are needed for building exploration infrastructure. Right now, though, the most sought-after resource in space is one that is actually quite abundant on the Blue Planet.
“If you think about it, water in space would be the oil of space, because that is going to power and transport, give us energy, enable the whole space economy and allow us to keep going further and further,” Abbud-Madrid said. “Such an elemental product as water would be the first one we go after.”
For more than two decades, Abbud-Madrid has directed the School of Mines’ Center for Space Resources, a research and development department devoted to in situ resource utilization – how to use things from space in space. In 1999, Abbud-Madrid helped found the annual Space Resources Roundtable bringing together other academics who were reaching for the stars. In recent years, he increasingly noticed new faces at this meeting including commercial businesses and international interests who were willing to put money on the table.
One of these companies, United Launch Alliance (ULA), made headlines when it put a price tag on water. A partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, ULA is a leader in the rocket industry with “more than 120 consecutive launches since 2006.”
What’s the going rate for an interstellar glass of H2O? ULA offered to pay $3,000 per kilogram of water in space – about $375 a cup. Besides being essential to support life, though, water makes an efficient propellant in low gravity.
The Colorado School of Mines opened in 1874 to support a growing resources industry in a territory that was previously considered part of the Great American Desert, a place considered to harbor “no hope for human civilization to settle,” Abbud-Madrid said. “The same thing that we’re saying about space.
“It only took people who came here (and) found gold.”
The academic program is open to any graduate student with a background in engineering, computer science, physical sciences, mathematics, or economics. While all students must enroll in Space Resources Fundamentals, focused tracks then explore Power and Energy, Robotics, Remote Extraction, Remote Sensing, or Economics and Policy.
While all of the courses are available online, one of the first students seeking a Master of Science in Space Resources quit his day job to focus on the program.
Hunter Williams was an engineer at Lockheed Martin before starting the program.
“I took a 70 percent pay cut but for me, Space Resources is important because it’s going to allow humanity to spread throughout the solar system,” Williams said. “There’s no way we’ll be able to do the things we have in science fiction without using the resources in space when we get there … for me, it’s a dream to help make that happen.”
Williams is working on using high-powered solar beams to blast asteroids into smaller, harvestable pieces. Another method being explored would use solar power to heat the asteroid just enough to melt ice, so it could be collected with a large bag.
The program has also drawn School of Mines alumnus Justin Cyrus back into the fold.
Cyrus formed Lunar Outpost after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering. Without a specific program addressing engineering problems for space, Cyrus developed his own curriculum.
He studied wireless communication, power systems quality and distributed networks, as well as robotics and autonomous systems. He also sought out experts in the field as mentors and engineers with other specialties to fill in his knowledge gaps.
Still, Cyrus enrolled in the first Space Resources pilot class last fall, looking to expand his knowledge base and network.
Lunar Outpost’s first atmospheric monitoring systems were deployed by the Denver Department of Environmental Health last September, tracking highway pollution in communities near Interstate 70. The project is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge.
In addition to being useful terrestrially, Cyrus said air quality systems are important for moon bases and deep space fueling stations.
But the field is not without its critics, and Cyrus acknowledges a large part of his job is educating outsiders. When asked if the degree program would bring legitimacy to the field, he pushed back.
“It really depends what field you’re talking about,” Cyrus said. “In the field of space technology, this has been an established part of the industry for a long time. You had the first guys thinking about utilizing resources on the moon right after the Apollo mission.
“Unfortunately, the complementary technologies have not been where they needed to be up until the past year or two where we can actually launch something from the moon and start performing missions,” he added.
Skeptics, Cyrus said, tend to come from one of two groups.
“One is they know nothing about space resources and you say ‘Hey, I’m going to go mine something on the moon,’ and they’re like ‘Since when is that a thing? When has that become possible?’” Cyrus said. “And the second group thinks it’s a lot further out than what we’re seeing in the industry.”
Dr. Ian Lange, assistant professor at the School of Mines, is interested in the impact that delivering an asteroid-sized nugget of platinum to Earth would have on the market. Lange’s questions don’t circle around how to make space mining possible so much as what happens to the market when it occurs.
“In order for someone to say I want to invest money there or I’m interested in making money off of that, your business case has to be there, and I think if your business plan is just current price of platinum times galactic amount of platinum, then you’re way off,” Lange said.
According to tech company Planetary Resources, one in four manufactured devices requires an element from the platinum metal group – from catalytic converters to LCD screens and cancer treatments.
“As an economist, my first gut reaction would be there’s nothing we need. When prices go up, we find a substitute or we find more of it on Earth, use a different battery, different metal, or all of these things,” Lange said. “The other side of it is, if there was a large source of platinum found, whether it be in space or on the ground, then we’d find things to put platinum in, we’d find uses for platinum.”
Although Lange raises tough questions, Abbud-Madrid has tapped him to teach in the Space Resources program because to succeed any mining project – whether on Earth or the moon – must consider its investors and customers.
“If a mining company finds gold in some part of the Earth, first of all they have to have the technical certainty that the gold is there,” Abbud-Madrid said. “They need to have economic certainty that they have investors. By the time you see an operation on Earth, they have already cleared all of this.”
While the program continues to make space travel and resource extraction possible in the present, Abbud-Madrid said he does not want students to lose sight of the future. And as part of the introductory course, one class questions what’s next.
“This is a topic that inspires students to look beyond the future,” he said. “One important resource about space that is seldom mentioned is inspiration. It pushes people beyond what is possible in the immediate future.”