The mining industry: Lost in space

Last month, on the lower slopes of Hawaii’s largest mountain, the Canadian mining industry was preparing for a trip to space.

At 9000 feet above sea level on Mauna Kea, the Canadian Space Agency, along with a consortium of Canadian and American companies, put their technology to the test with the hopes of one day using it to extract precious resources from the moon or Mars.

Mike Paduada, public outreach and media relations officer for the field test, bore witness to many of the experiments. “You can only test so many things in lab conditions,” he says. “It’s like watching a hardcore science and engineering reality show. You want your hardware not to work properly, so you can troubleshoot.”

In Hawaii, “the varied terrain bears a lot of similarities to the lunar environment,” he says. The consortium even had the site blessed by a local Kahuna (chief), eager to host a crew of mainland scientists.

Paduada recounts one scenario in which he had to pretend he was the first person on scene after a mining astronaut had “an ATV accident.” The patient (really a high-tech dummy named Bernie) had a punctured lung and Paduada, equipped only with a video-camera and a first aid kit, had to treat him based on the remote advice of a doctor back in Hamilton at McMaster University.

“It was really tense,” he says, “I was a little panicked.” The scenario was set up, complete with time delay, to reflect the isolation of an astronaut on the moon.

Paduada also witnessed some drilling technology being tested, including a  drill bit made by the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) and Canadian company Dimatech. The bit is part of a prototype called RESOLVE that was made for NASA to practice extracting oxygen from the lunar soil.

Another Canadian company, Neptec, was on scene to test their new multi-use robotic platform which can be retrofitted for different purposes once on the Moon. Neptec is best known for their “laser camera system” which has flown with every shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster to check for damage to the external tiles.

“Canada has a lot of insight into communications technology,” says Paduada. “There’s also huge Canadian expertise in mining.” This is the expertise that will be harnessed to one day extract hydrogen and oxygen from the moon’s surface for life support systems and to generate electricity through fuel cells.

“If we ever want to do any activities beyond the Earth’s orbit,” says Paduada, “it’s much cheaper to dig for materials once we’re there than it is to bring them from Earth.”