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Australia Will Lead The Way In Space Mining Because We're Used To Operating In Isolated, Extreme Environments

Space Mining: One Of These Pics Is Mars, The Other's Australia

It's hard to talk about space mining without thinking of Bruce Willis striding across an asteroid in Armageddon, and the scientists, engineers and lawyers at the forefront of space exploration know it.

University of NSW School of Mining Engineering research director Serkan Saydam said off-earth mining preparations were underway but Bruce and his hunky team of riggers were misleading.

"It's definitely not going to happen like in the movie Armageddon and I can guarantee it's not going to be done by the humans, it's going to be done by the robots," Saydam said.

He said asteroid mining would be underway within the next 10 years with mining on Mars within about 50 years. However, the resources collected most likely wouldn't be sent back to Earth.

"Bringing back the material is not really economical. We've got to use it in space," Saydam said. He cited about two million near-earth asteroids full of iron ore, copper and nickel as initial sites.

He said these resources would most probably be mined and then manufactured into construction material or, in the case of water, turned into a type of rocket fuel.

While mining and manufacture in an inhospitable environment may sound far-fetched, space archaeologist Alice Gorman said we did it all the time in Australia.

"We do have some very specific expertise here," Gorman said.

"We have been running huge mining operations in remote locations which bear some geological resemblance to martian landscapes and we're also at the forefront of implementing automation and this is one of the key technologies required."

"We have an opportunity with all our expertise to perhaps lead the conversation about space exploration."

Australia's mining operations are often done remotely using robotics.

There's one great unknown that would potentially slow the progress of off-earth mining -- aliens.

Gorman, who is a senior lecturer at Flinders University, said the off-earth mining conversation is based on the assumption that there is no life to interfere with.

"There's nothing living out there that we know of yet," Gorman said.

"There are no ecosystems that can be impacted on and, as a result of this, I would argue that how we understand the space environment and then how we understand mining on it is really very poorly understood."

She said that in the same way that mining companies on Earth were required to asses the potential social, environmental and heritage impacts, corresponding regulatory framework should be introduced for celestial mining.

"If we did discover evidence of alien life on asteroids or any other bodies, it would change things completely because that is at the core of the current ethical approaches to dealing with the space environment," she said.

"The thing I think is a risk though is that once space exploration is in the hands of private corporations, there's not the same level of transparency or accountability that you would have with a national organisation or an NGO. NASA has to account for its activities, a mining company does not.

"I could imagine a situation where, in the interests of profit, a mining company may well conceal any evidence they find of possible alien life whether it's still alive or archaeological.

"We know that kind of thing happens in terrestrial mining so there's no reason to think that won't happen in space and there's far lesser possibility [for surveillance]."

There are an estimated two million near-earth asteroids that could be mined.

Indeed, when it comes to space laws and surveillance, Western Sydney University space law expert Steven Freeland said global governments needed to introduce legislation before private enterprise went ahead and started doing it.

"Space is not a lawless regime," Freeland said.

"Space is still highly strategic and highly political and, sadly, highly relevant for the military although space is very much open for business."

He said recent legislation introduced in the U.S. to encourage off-earth mining, as well as Luxembourg's plans for a legal framework, needed to be bolstered by a global approach to deciding who owned space's resources.

"It’s important to recognise space is about humanity and we have to avoid the problems and mistakes we’ve made on Earth," Freeland said.

"Conflicts have often arisen out of a desire for one or another country to colonise over resources.

"It's really important that people sit down and work this through."

So what does Bruce Willis have to say for his promise of heroic riggers exploding asteroids with only their wits to save them?

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