Mining in outer space

Developer Advocate, Cloud Data Services, IBM

As humans have used data and technology to unearth precious metals, our processes, technology and use of data have driven the mining industry ever forward. Mining originated in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, though at first people dug based only on physical observation and surface technology. Their technology was simplistic, but it become more sophisticated during the time of the Romans, who enhanced existing shaft sinking techniques and developed the first hydraulic mining methods—allowing them to sink shafts as deep as 650 feet.

Digging into data

Today, we’re still digging, but we’ve gone father down than our predecessors—more than 12,000 feet down, in the case of the TauTona gold mine. We have also begun to understand the science behind sedimentary processes, ore chemistry and continental shelf subduction. What’s more, doing so has allowed us to develop data-based technology to enhance our efficacy and boot our output.

Modern-day mining and spatial data analysis share an intimate, critical connection. Indeed, the lifecycle of mining both begins and ends with data. For starters, data drives site analysis—interpreting data taken from borehole samples can reveal to us what lies beneath the surface. But that’s only the beginning.

Data has indeed driven us far beyond the limits of our predecessors. We no longer resort only to surface geology when assaying sites; now we interpret distinct spatial patterns in topography, geology and vegetation, evaluating them for signs of valuable subsurface deposits.

Successful cost-effective discovery of new mineral deposits relies on geographic information systems (GIS) that harness geospatial data—3D information stored in a coordinate reference system—to identify likely locations for exploration drifts, crosscuts, sublevels, manways and ventilation shafts. However, GIS analysis isn’t powered simply by spatial data—which is merely basic 3D information—but rather by geospatial data. And the difference is important: When you’re taking highly accurate measurements of objects hundreds or thousands of meters apart, coordinate reference systems lay a foundation for success by using mathematical models to take stock of the bumpy spheroid we call home, then mapping locations onto a flat surface, allowing computation of areas and distances.

Such calculations can get very complex. Because Earth’s surface is widely varied, sometimes a certain mathematical model can be particularly suited to mapping a certain place. For example, some coordinate reference systems are designed for mapping near the poles, and others for mapping in particular countries. Indeed, the US military divides the United States into about a dozen “UTM zones” for mapping purposes.

Taking mining up—and out

But the next frontier in mining is taking us where our geospatial management systems have not gone—outer space. More than 9,000 near-Earth asteroids hover at the edge of our reach, their richness—as much as $100 trillion worth of mineral assets—posing a vivid contrast to terrestrial mineral supplies, which are becoming increasingly depleted.

In response, new names are coming to the fore in mining. We’re all familiar with mining industry bellwethers such as Bechtel Global, BHP Billiton and Vale—but what about GSI or Planetary Resources? These disruptive startups are reinventing mining with a new interplanetary model that aims to take us from a few thousand feet down to a few billion feet out.

With the launch of the ARKYD exploratory nanosatellites earlier in 2015, humans took the first step in commercial exploration of resources on other planets and on asteroids. Interplanetary mining is still in its infancy, and we’re continually working to enhance the algorithms we use to evaluate asteroid composition, mass, density, rate of rotation and orbital trajectory. But even though we haven’t reached the extraction point yet, we stand at the edge of the next great frontier in mining. And, as has always been the case in mining, it’s only a matter of time.