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UNSW proposes moon mining for rocket fuel

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A University of New South Wales (UNSW) research team plans to investigate the prospect of mining water from the moon to help produce rocket fuel.

The research team announced yesterday that it would approach universities, agencies and industry bodies for the project to research its viability under the United Nations’ Moon Treaty, which states that the moon should benefit the international community.

The UNSW argues that if rocket fuel could be made from water on the moon, allowing for refuelling in space, it could cut the cost of carrying out space missions, providing a supply chain outside of Earth and helping to expand the footprint of the global space industry.

Hydrogen and oxygen are two of of the primary ingredients in rocket fuel.

Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW, said that one aim of the project was to break down lunar mining’s potential economic benefits.

“Australia has a natural advantage for off-Earth mining – we have some of the very best mining research, technology and automation tools in the world, and the largest mining companies,” he said.

“While overseas teams have been looking at solving some of the problems behind space mining, our project wants to examine how we could actually get this done, firstly from a practical engineering point of view, but also closing a viable business case.”

Dempster said that given sufficient funding, he and his team may be just five to 10 years away from piloting a water mining “proof of concept” operation on the moon.

“Once we prove that the technology exists and major risks can be mitigated, I expect that mining companies will see the commercial potential for this sort of venture and put some dollars towards making it a reality,” he said.

Professor Dempster conceded it was still likely decades away from commercial mining operations being established on the moon.

Speaking about the project, UNSW Dean of Engineering Mark Hoffman said Australia needed to invest in disruptive, innovative technologies to tackle some of our planet’s big challenges.

“Projects such as this one will help deepen Australia’s expertise in off-Earth mining and facilitate the growth of the space industry in Australia,” Hoffman said.

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