How does an engineer turn his gaze from deep underground to far above it? Saydam studied mining engineering in Turkey, where he grew up, and made his way to diamond mines in South Africa before returning to academia in Australia. His focus has been improving the safety and productivity of underground mines. He has large projects supported by the mining industry to prevent the corrosion of steel bolts, a seemingly intractable problem. “If you say it’s impossible,” Saydam says, “it’s quite interesting.” (After nine years, his team discovered that the corrosion culprit was bacteria. Now they’re figuring out how to stop it.)
Saydam saw opportunities to bring advanced technologies into the mine: robots, virtual reality, wirelessly connected sensors. He wants it all available to everyone, cheaply. In 2008, he started the Future Mining Conference series. “I’m sort of a futurist, but looking at only mining,” Saydam says. In 2013, Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER), suggested that since Saydam was into future mining, maybe space mining would appeal to him. Noting that space is empty, they started calling it “off-Earth” mining, and held a forum that gained a lot of attention. “To be honest, when I started this with Andrew, everyone laughed,” Saydam says in his Turkish accent and slightly broken English, which somehow makes you take him more seriously. “Still, when I talk about off-Earth mining, they first don’t believe. They change at the end of this conversation.”
The next year, they published a paper on the asteroid 1986 DA. They found that while not all that glitters is gold, not all that actually is 10 million kilograms of gold is a sparkling business opportunity. In their economic analysis, an investment in mining the asteroid for metals and bringing them to Earth would not pay off for 80 years—and might never pay off. (If you don’t need to bring the metals all the way back home, that’s another, more profitable story.) In any case, trying to land bucketloads of valuable metals would stir up all kinds of problems — legal, political, economic. How would they be taxed, and what happens when oversupply crashes the markets?
Saydam started visiting NASA, giving lectures and networking. Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, told him they were interested in human colonies on Mars and wanted to utilize the resources on-site. “Space technologists prefer to say ‘in situ resource utilization’ rather than ‘mining,’” Saydam says. “But everyone knows that it means mining. Because you gotta dig.” The cost of shipping water and building materials to space is too high, so mining is the answer. “I basically explained [to] them how we do things.”
JPL wasn’t sure what tools it would require to mine. Scientists know that Mars’ soil, or “regolith,” contains water in its minerals that is released when heated. That can be done with a hollow heated drill, or the regolith can be dug up with shovels or a tunnel-boring machine and then transported to a plant in trucks or a conveyor belt. One of Saydam’s first projects with JPL was a computer model — the Water Extraction Mars Mining Model (WEM3) — which, using any of these methods, predicted how much equipment you’d need to supply a colony of any given size.
That work attracted the attention of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Researchers there were looking at possible landing spots for a Mars colony. Saydam and his team worked with NASA to develop a software model called the Mars Mining Operation Optimizer (M2O2). You import data on topography and the distribution of mineral resources, which in this case came from NASA’s Mars orbiters, and the software creates a map. Choose your mining equipment, place your colony, and M2O2 tells you what additional equipment you need and highlights hazards and uncertainties. It even lays conveyor belt tracks for you between a mine and a colony, rerouting around scientific points of interest if necessary. Sitting in Saydam’s office in Sydney, he pointed to sample images on his computer. It’s like a lunar version of the computer game SimCity, with chunkier graphics.
The off-Earth mining portion of Saydam’s lab has expanded, with students and collaborators working on diverse projects. The terrestrial mining work, often funded by industry, “pays the bills,” he says, but off-Earth mining “is my passion.” Projects include developing flight itineraries to asteroids, conjuring mining robots, evaluating environmental impact, and estimating available reserves in regolith. He plans to start figuring out how to anchor spacecrafts to asteroids.
Sophia Casanova, one of Saydam’s PhD students, is currently interning at JPL, studying water-ice deposits on Mars and looking for the best places to land humans. “There’s an increasing awareness that if we want to go to Mars or we want a long stay on the moon, we can’t do that without some form of mining,” she says. Casanova studied geology in college (with a bit of space science on the side) and worked in oil and gas exploration for five years before starting her PhD. She says the greatest difficulty in planning for Mars is the lack of information, since you can’t easily drill or pick up rocks to do surveys like you can on Earth. “So there’s a lot of science work that still needs to happen,” she says.
Australia created a space agency in May, and Saydam submitted grant proposals that would provide $20 million to $30 million in funding for off-Earth mining research over seven years. One question is what kind of new technology might be needed. For surveying resources, it’s too expensive to drill multiple holes, so they may need a new type of ground-penetrating radar or tomography. And conditions in space are different from those on Earth, with cold temperatures, dramatic temperature fluctuations, a vacuum, abrasive dust, and radiation. And operations will require a lot more automation or remote control. You won’t have astronauts working heavy drills. “It’s not gonna be like Armageddon movie,” Saydam says.
Laurent Sibille is a physicist and expert in space resources utilization at the Swamp Works laboratory at Kennedy who worked with Saydam on the model. He says that Saydam “advances some really novel approaches, both on the technology side and looking at the economics of mining in space, which is critical.”