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A mine planning methodology for space RESEARCH MEETS INDUSTRY

From start-ups to industry giants, every company that wants to stay competitive needs to be innovative. At the heart of innovation lies research. Partnerships between industry and research are a win-win: Companies get access to brilliant minds, while the scientists get to see their research have direct impact, plus setting them up for both a career in industry and academia.

In this article, we speak to mining expert Carlos Daniel Espejel and ispace Europe, who as part of an Industrial Fellowship between the lunar exploration company, the University of Luxembourg and the University of New South Wales, have joined forces to come up with a methodology for space mining.

“It’s amazing to work with people who have the same dream. We are leaping into a new area and industry. I am excited to be in Luxembourg, the place where this is happening,” says Postdoc Carlos Espejel, a Mechanical & Mining Engineer who started his project with ispace in September 2018, bringing 10 years of valuable expertise in mine planning with him.

Dr Carlos Daniel Espejel relocated from Australia to Luxembourg to work with ispace Europe on a collaborative project with the University in New South Wales in the framework of an FNR Industrial Fellowship

Space mining is a hot topic – by many seen as the next new frontier, and Carlos explains the research and development taking place to make it a reality can also benefit a range of other space projects, such as space tourism and extending the life of rockets and satellites:

“The life span of a satellite is around 15 years and they usually ‘die’ because they run out of fuel. If we had the capacity to refuel satellites, the lifespan is potentially endless. We will also need fuel depots in space, especially if we want to keep travelling beyond Mars.
"When you see these huge rockets – around 80% is fuel and only 20% of its useful load is payload.
"If we could refuel in space, we could decrease fuel and increase payload.”

Luxembourg: the place to be

“There are few countries supporting this dream of space mining. So far, Luxembourg is as active as the US, to the point where American companies have opened offices in Luxembourg”, Carlos says.

Indeed, Luxembourg is currently the only European country to have a legal framework for the utilisation of space resources, which was passed in 2017. A wide spectrum of scientists are essential in order to make the new space endeavour a reality, people such as Carlos with his extensive mining planning experience - ispace Europe were actively looking for a way to bring Carlos on board:

“Soon after I finished my PhD in Mining Engineering, I met Kyle Acierno [current ispace VP Global Sales & Strategy] and Julien Lamamy [current Managing Director ispace Europe], they needed an expert in mine planning on earth with mechanical engineering understanding, and also who has a passion for space – it was ideal for me. I know there is a lot of work to be done, but I love to be a part of the team that takes the first steps toward making space mining a reality,” Carlos explains.

First step: Mapping the space resources

“After we demonstrate our lunar lander and rover technologies and before we move to utilizing lunar resources, there first needs to be a phase of exploration in the mining sense, that is the precise mapping of resources. This is a key area to which Carlos is contributing”, explains Julien Lamamy, who is Carlos’ supervisor at ispace Europe.
“The research of Philippe Ludivig on rover navigation is also contributing to this by building map of the moon surface and by localising the rover and resources on these maps. One then needs to process this new exploration data and evaluate the grade of the resources and the effort it takes to extract and utilise them – this another area where Carlos’ research is a major contribution” Julien adds.
Carlos with fellow Industrial Fellow Philippe Ludivig (PL), who works on creating a navigation system for a small lunar rover (more on PL's project below the article)

Carlos’ project at ispace Europe gravitates around two aspects: the first part is coming up with a standards code that will help reporting exploration results, resources and reserves on the Moon and in space. The second part is about a methodology to estimate Lunar ‘Ore Reserves’ as they are referred to in mining terms.

Why is a code important?

“Because the mining industry on earth follows similar standard codes: JORC (Joint Ore Reserves Committee). The mining industry on earth bases their reporting on this code. We are essentially trying to come up with the first draft of the ‘space JORC’,” Carlos explains.

STEP TWO: A PLAN FOR HOW TO MANAGE MINERAL RESOURCES IN SPACE

Once a code has been developed, the second part is coming up with a mine planning methodology for space, essentially a plan for how to manage the mines. Carlos elaborates:

"In the end, it’s about coming up with a methodology to estimate space ore reserves. It’s not just about estimating their value - it’s about estimating the optimum extraction sequence of that deposit for the life of the mine. Life of the mine refers to how long it takes to mine a deposit – some will take 5 years to mine, some you could mine for 100. We have deposits on earth that have been mined for more than 100 years.
“When you calculate the value of space deposits – ore reserves - you have to take into account the geological models, mining, geotechnical, metallurgical, financial, engineering, among other parameters.
“I would like to create a portfolio which includes each deposit, the reserves amount, equipment needed, and the risk associated with extracting it.”

Carlos, who relocated from Australia to Luxembourg for this project, is based at ispace Europe in Luxembourg most of the time, but will also be travelling to the collaborating research institution in Australia, the University of New South Wales.

It may come as a surprise, but Australia - the world's biggest exporter of coal - is home to many headquarters of the biggest mining companies in the world, and is also where the JORC was created.

A bridge between the space community and terrestrial mining

Carlos emphasises that its thanks to financial support that schemes such as the FNR’s Industrial Fellowships that he has been able to join ispace – and that it has not only helped him fulfil his dream of working on the space mining endeavour, but also benefits other players:

“It was a blessing. It was essential in helping my dream come true. I would say this scheme helps everyone: ispace is looking for resources to make its vision happen - and so in meeting their goals - and Luxembourg to bring specialists from other countries, companies from other nations, and so to become a space mining hub. This FNR initiative is beneficial for everyone.”
“This one project is allowing us to expand our international collaborations to create a bridge between the space community and terrestrial mining” Julien Lamamy adds.

More in this series

An autonomous lunar rover for space exploration (Philippe Ludivig - ispace Europe / SnT at University of Luxembourg)

A technique to enrich Moon minerals (Josh Rasera - ispace Europe / Imperial College London)

ABOUT CARLOS DANIEL ESPEJEL

Before moving to Luxembourg for his project, Dr Carlos Daniel Espejel spent 13 years in Australia, where he studied Mechanical Engineering, followed by an MA in Mining Engineering and a PhD in Mining Engineering (focus on strategic mine planning). Carlos worked full-time during all of his studies and also worked for Glencore Xstrata, Anglo American and BHP, the biggest mining companies in the world, where he did the mine planning for their biggest operations in Australia and Chile.

© ispace

About Industrial Fellowships

The aim of the Industrial Fellowships programme (formerly AFR-PPP) is to foster the cooperation between Luxembourg based companies active in R&D and public research institutions in Luxembourg and/or abroad. The scheme awards PhD and Postdoc grants to researchers who carry out their PhD and/or postdoc training in collaboration with a company in Luxembourg. The scheme is open to all scientific domains, and to all researchers, regardless of their nationality. Collaborating companies must have a presence in Luxembourg.

About ispace

ispace Europe S.A. is one of many companies that have set up shop in Luxembourg as a result of the SpaceResources.lu initiative. Founded in September 2010 by Takeshi Hakamada, ispace is a private lunar exploration company focused on developing micro-robotic systems to locate, characterise, extract, produce and deliver resources from the lunar surface to customers on the Moon and in cislunar space. In March 2017, ispace signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Luxembourg Government in the context of the SpaceResources.lu initiative, with a focus on developing miniaturised technology to discover, map, and utilise resources on the Moon. ispace-inc.com