Before any design and future operation of processing equipment in space there will need to be conducted a significant amount of testing and piloting to minimize the risk of failure due to the following unique issues:
- Asteroids will essentially be at near zero gravity, whilst the Moon and Mars will be at low gravity – impacting plant operation and material movement.
- Temperature extremes. Asteroids have large temperature variations when in shadow or in the sun, whilst variation on the Moon and Mars must also be accounted for.
- Energy removal. On asteroids in particular (but also on the Moon and Mars) thermal energy buildup from materials processing can be an issue and must be removed via radiation or other means.
- Low or no atmospheric pressure. For material processing the requirements for moving the materials generally require some form of pressure, whether supplied by gases or liquids, which means it must take place in a pressurized area. Magnetic movement is a possibility, but only for magnetic materials (e.g magnetite).
- Batch operation. Due to the likely requirement to transfer material from a vacuum into a pressurized area some sections of the process will need to operate in batch mode, which can bring its own operational difficulties.
- On asteroids in particular, issues with anchoring of both the spacecraft and any robotic mining systems.
- Transfer of liquid materials in-orbit directly from the producer to the consumer (spacecraft or satellite).
- Lack of reagents (chemicals used for testing or processing). Many processing steps require reagents to produce pure final products, in general reagents will not be readily available, and they must either be imported or next-best or good-enough solutions must be found.
- Dust formed during landing and mining processes on the surface of the asteroid, Moon or Mars will not settle, or settle slower, due to the difference in gravity. It will likely collect on surfaces over time, including solar panels, etc. This will degrade equipment performance over time. In solar orbit, gravity gradient forces should be much lower than in Earth orbit and thus there will be less natural dust removal by that method.
- Electrostatic formation. On asteroids, and has been seen on the Moon, there is the potential for strong electrostatic attraction to collect dust onto surfaces and seals, causing potential damage and maintenance issues.
- Maintenance and spares. Early mining operations will rely heavily on robotic systems, with minimal personnel, so equipment must therefore be robust, as simple as possible with limited failure points. Any maintenance activities will likely have to use remotely operated robots, which would preferably be controlled autonomously so as to quickly react to unforeseen events. In particular due to vacuum conditions and temperature variations seals and lubricants (or any rubber-like materials, etc.) are expected to be specific areas of concern.
- Remote and autonomous operation. Due to robotic nature of the mining, and communication delays between mining equipment and the operations center, it is likely that some form of Artificial Intelligence will be required to monitor and operate the operation. This could be developed via machine learning during testing in zero-gravity nearer to the operations center.
Also be sure to review our discussion on Why Space?, and to download our Capabilities Statement and Quality Policy (which includes our Mission and Values).