From 7–11 October 2019 space experts from all over the world convened in Luxembourg for the first Space Resources Week to discuss how best to explore our Solar System sustainably and limit costly transport of resources from Earth. For example, can we produce water and oxygen on the Moon?
Highlights of the conference included research that has extracted water from lunar soil returned to Earth with the Apollo astronauts. Hannah Sargeant of the Open University in the United Kingdom presented her work on heating the oxygen in lunar soil to 1000°C with hydrogen to create water.
Having proven this is possible on Earth, development has started on an instrument to be part of ESA’s Prospect drill that will fly on Luna-27 mission to the Moon. If robots or astronauts could mine for water on the Moon, it could be used to create fuel and oxygen for rockets and life-support.
Using a method called molten salt electrolysis, lunar soil can be turned into a mixture of metal alloys while extracting oxygen. This is another example studied by Beth Lomax’s PhD work at the University of Glasgow. Both the oxygen and metal could be used in future by settlers on the Moon.
The first days of the convention included a professional course with space engineers, scientists, lawyers and economists followed by a space mining summit on the legal, business and technical challenges of resource use.
On the last two days of Space Resource Week ESA organised a workshop together with the Luxembourg Space Agency to plan the steps Europe will take in the next five years. Over 350 participants from a broad range of disciplines including academia, industry, mining and energy companies attended, as well as politicians, entrepreneurs, investors and economists.
“All events were fully-booked, showing an overwhelming interest in the topic,” says Bernhard Hufenbach, lead of ESA’s human and robotic exploration strategy.
“This week is the kick-off for the next era of space exploration, we will not launch everything we need from Earth, but use elements we find on planets and the moons we explore.”
ESA exploration strategist James Carpenter and Mathias Link from the Luxembourg Space Agency announced that Space Resources Week would return next year.
On 18 October 2019 the Luxembourg Deputy Prime Minister Etienne Schneider and ESA Director General Jan Wörner committed to strengthening collaboration in the field of space resources research and innovation, including the announcement of the Luxembourg Space Resources Innovation Centre that will focus on extraction, processing and manufacturing of space resources.
Luxembourg aims to expand this Space Resources Research Centre towards a larger Space Resources Innovation Center with a European and even international scope. In this matter, ESA and Luxembourg will further investigate a close cooperation which will advance their common goals.
Over the last two years, ESA has made significant progress in this field, developing a strategy for space resources and implementing ground-based research, technology and mission definition activities that is part of its Space19+ proposal to member states.
James concludes, “this is just the beginning, humankind is returning to the Moon and we are setting the international collaboration required to do this sustainably and in partnership. We are an inter-disciplinary community of space resource personnel and will convene again next year to review the progress made towards some key breakthroughs, making Europe a leader in this field.”