This year, a group of future rocket scientists at the University of Washington turned their collective brains on the challenge of lunar mining. After months of research they presented to a panel of NASA and industry experts their detailed plan to travel to the moon, establish a mining outpost and jettison the product back to Earth.
The UW students placed first at the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) contest in Florida, co-sponsored by the National Institute of Aerospace and NASA.
“They truly believed in what they were doing, and I believe they got the right answer,” said instructor Dana Andrews, a Seattle aerospace veteran. “And the judges believed it, too.”
Each year, students in Aeronautics & Astronautics do a senior design project. Past years’ aerospace offerings have looked at how to steer an asteroid off course from hitting the Earth, or how to design a lunar-based observatory.
This year, 23 seniors tackled space mining. Andrews began the class by issuing a request for proposals from the fictional International Space Consortium to establish a mining colony on the moon.
Students split into groups to submit competing bids. Andrews picked a winner and the whole class worked together to refine the details. Over two quarters, they navigated the delicacies of working in a large team and pored over research papers and patent applications.
“In my last four years, I have never done so much staying on campus all night, spending hours doing research,” said team member Adam Hadaller.
The students worked to create a plan that would be both possible and profitable.
“At first I was pretty skeptical [of lunar mining],” admitted team lead Lindsey Gibbons. But research changed her mind. “We have all the technology at our fingertips. It’s just finding the funding, and the crazy people who want to do it.”
What’s their plan? The UW students propose to use a commercial rocket for some initial exploratory missions. If results are promising, they plan to build their own single-stage launch vehicle, a fully reusable rocket that would be cheaper for multiple trips. The company would establish a space station in lower-Earth orbit, and from there send a vehicle to rendezvous with a third vehicle, a lunar lander orbiting the moon.
A lunar outpost would house 30 astronaut miners who work in 6-month shifts to reduce radiation exposure.
“It’s mostly robotic, but we need humans to repair stuff and oversee the general operation,” Hadaller said.
Scientific research and tourism would help subsidize the cost of the mining operation.
To transport their product to market—an important consideration for an extraterrestrial mining venture—they would slingshot it back to Earth. The sling would be made out of uncured carbon fiber, rolled up for transport, and cured in sunlight once on the moon.
More than four decades ago Andrews was a student in the same course. His class designed turboprop airplanes. After graduating in 1966, he spent many years with Boeing’s aerospace division before becoming chief technology officer at Andrews Aerospace, Inc.
Given his background in industry, Andrews encouraged his students to consider cost and risk. The students plan to first concentrate on mining platinum because it is the most profitable ore (financial estimates took into account the fact that they would flood the global market for platinum). Once established, the company would move to mine rare Earth elements, which could be used to build cell phones, electric car batteries and renewable-energy technologies.
“It really gives you a feel for what the actual industry is like,” said team member Bryan Hopkins. “You get a good sense of what to expect in the years to come.”
Students estimate that the total project investment would be about $22 billion, but that with their plan it would cost no more than $4 billion in any year. The estimated return is in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Could their plan ever fly? They’ll at least have a chance to pitch it to an influential audience: As winners of the contest, they are invited to present this fall at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Space 2012 conference in Pasadena.
MINERS IN SPACE:
Space mining might seem far-fetched. But this spring a startup across Lake Washington, Planetary Resources of Bellevue, announced its ambitious plan to mine asteroids for profit.
The UW students were excited to learn that space mining might be moving from class project to reality.
“They were just bubbling about it,” Andrews said. “A few students sent their CVs to the company.”
And after seeing the Planetary Resources founders’ plan, would Andrews give them a passing grade?
“We think they are real,” Andrews said, “but they’re very deliberate in their development, which is the right way to go.”
For more information, contact Andrews at firstname.lastname@example.org.