PhD candidate and Lunar Outpost CEO Justin Cyrus shows off the new suspension on his Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform as it explores a mock lunar
PhD candidate and Lunar Outpost CEO Justin Cyrus shows off the new suspension on his Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform as it explores a mock lunar surface. (Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post)

Enter the huge building that houses the Excavation Engineering and Earth Mechanics Institute at the Colorado School of Mines, walk past the massive tunnel-boring machine, rotary and percussive drills, and you'll get a glimpse of the new frontier of development — space resources.

What looks like a big sandbox with a Tonka-truck-size rover is part of the work underway in Mines' Space Resources Program. The "sand" in the large, shallow box is finely ground basalt, meant to simulate the moon's surface.

And the 22-pound rover is equipped with mass spectrometers, which reveal the composition of different elements, as well as a drill, a camera and LIDAR — Light Detection and Ranging, which uses light to produce three-dimensional images.

The little rover, or prospector, as Lunar Outpost CEO Justin Cyrus calls his vehicle, was built to explore the resources available on the moon. Cyrus is also a Ph.D. student at Mines in a first-of-its-kind program, which draws on earthly technology and practices to develop the resources necessary to sustain space missions that go farther and longer.

"It's a living-off-the-land approach. For Mines, being a university that has been looking at terrestrial resources for 145 years, it was a natural thing to do it now beyond Earth," said Angel Abbud-Madrid, the program's director.

The small, self-navigating vehicle roaming through the lunar-like surface is the next evolution in prospecting, Abbud-Madrid said.


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"This is exactly the equivalent to the pan that miners were using two blocks away from here in Clear Creek, trying to find gold. But it's a very sophisticated version of that," Abbud-Madrid added.

Depending on shipments of supplies from Earth limits the duration and distance of space missions. So universities, scientists, aerospace companies and NASA have been looking for a while at ways space travelers can take advantage of the resources available where they're going. NASA refers to the field as in-situ resource utilization, or using what's in place.

Colorado School of Mines professor Chris Dreyer holds a simulated asteroid that was created in the lab.
Colorado School of Mines professor Chris Dreyer holds a simulated asteroid that was created in the lab. (Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post)

"Mining and in-situ resource utilization will play an important role in NASA's future human exploration of the Moon and Mars," NASA said in an email. "The benefits of space mining, and making things where you want to explore versus bringing everything from Earth, are a reduction in overall cost and risk for human exploration beyond Earth's orbit."

Mines has been involved in space resources research since the 1990s, when Mike Duke, a former NASA geologist considered a pioneer in space resources, started working at Mines. Twenty years ago, the school convened its first round table on extraterrestrial resources. People from NASA and other universities attended, and participation has grown since, Abbud-Madrid said.

One of the participants was George Sowers, then a scientist and executive with Centennial-based United Launch Alliance. He told the crowd that his company was willing to buy made-in-space propellant to fuel rockets if somebody could supply it.

Now, Sowers is a Mines professor and on the Space Resources staff. After he announced that he wanted to buy propellant, several fledgling space mining companies asked him for letters of intent they could take to their investors.

"It's a little bit of chicken and the egg. The whole thing needs to get bootstrapped," Sowers said. "You can't have a business as a supplier unless you have a customer, and there's no demand for a product unless there's a supply."

However, momentum is building to develop supplies as NASA and aerospace companies aim for longer stays on the moon and trips with humans onboard to Mars. People will need to restock fuel, water and other materials on the fly, so to speak, if that's going to work.

"The efficient utilization of space resources is a key technology enabler to support long-term, sustainable human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit," Paul Anderson, Lockheed Martin's director of the Orion Service Module, said in an email.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on NASA's Orion, designed for long explorations of deep space with the goal of eventually carrying people to the moon and planets. The company has been working since the early 2000s on technologies to tap space resources, said Anderson, a Mines alumnus.

Colorado School of Mines Center for Space Resources director Angel Abbud-Madrid, left, and space resources professor George Sowers stand in a lab at the
Colorado School of Mines Center for Space Resources director Angel Abbud-Madrid, left, and space resources professor George Sowers stand in a lab at the school in Golden. (Michael Ciaglo / Special to the Denver Post)

In the fall of 2018, Mines became the first university to offer master's and doctorate degrees in space resources. The school describes the program as bringing together many fields, including mining, resource economics, robotics, advanced manufacturing, remote sensing, metals/metallurgy, solar and nuclear energy.

"We announced the program in 2017, and the interest was worldwide to the point that we had to abandon the idea that we were going to have it on campus," Abbud-Madrid said. "It has attracted a lot of professionals, students in aerospace, metals, mining, entrepreneurs, investment bankers, economists — in all aspects of the field."

The 45 students in the program are from three different continents and 12 different countries, including the United States, Poland, Italy, Australia, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Mines Space Resources staff has had input into efforts to create a national institute for research into what natural resources in outer space could be used on trips to faraway spots. Colorado Reps. Scott Tipton, a Republican, and Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat, are sponsoring a bill that would establish the Space Resources Institute. The goal is to have a central hub "to support the development of foundational science and technology and options for using space resources," Tipton said in a release.

So, what's on the moon, asteroids and other planets that's usable and how can people extract it? Those are the kinds of questions that students and researchers at Mines, other universities, NASA and in the aerospace industry are trying to answer. Metals, like platinum or gold, might come to mind.

"In fact, there are many things," Abbud-Madrid said. "There's solar energy, low gravity, ultra-high vacuum, water, minerals and gases, all over the solar system.

"And more than bringing those resources to Earth, which may seem attractive, it's about how those resources in space can help us as we expand to the moon, Mars and the rest of the solar system," Abbud-Madrid added.

Actually, solar energy is one of the resources that scientists want to bring more of to Earth. Researchers in China are said to be looking into space-based stations that would beam a steady supply of solar power to Earth, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. The paper said scientists are looking at possibly building a station in space so it wouldn't have to be launched from Earth.

Researchers in other countries are also exploring the idea, Sowers said.

"We could use lunar resources to build a network of satellites in Earth orbit, collect sunlight and beam the energy down to Earth, creating an inexhaustible source of energy that's completely green forever," Sowers said. "This is not science fiction. This is maybe 20, 30 years in the future. Space can fix Earth's energy problems forever."

In a lab on the Mines campus in Golden, Hunter Williams, who is earning a master's degree in space resources, is creating conditions as similar as possible to those on the moon. He's using a 3D printer to turn simulated moon dust into layers of building materials, which would be needed if people establish a base on the moon. Sunlight could be used to power the printer.

"In space, it costs $50,000 to send a single kilogram of stuff to the moon, and you usually don't do a one-off. You can't send a single kilogram," Williams said. "Brick-making is the first step, but as we refine this technology, we're going to be making things like wrenches, parts for robots."

In the same lab, Ben Thrift, a Ph.D. student, has buckets of materials that he uses to whip up objects similar in composition to asteroid surfaces, including those containing hydrated minerals. He then uses an intense lamp and elliptical reflector, simulating concentrated solar power, to heat the material to extract water from the minerals.

"We can make water. We can also get carbon dioxide. From water, we can make rocket propellant, and that's the first thing you should go after in space, to enable transportation," said research professor Chris Dreyer.

Breaking down water into oxygen and hydrogen will allow production of propellant to fuel rockets. There is a lot of water on the moon, in asteroids and on Mars, the researchers said.

While aiming for the moon and beyond, student and Lunar Outpost CEO Cyrus is among professionals and entrepreneurs finding ways to put their technology to work closer to home to keep their companies going. The software and other systems in the company's roving prospector can be used to navigate and map underground mines.

The startup helped develop customized air-quality sensors for local schools that won the city of Denver $1 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies for a network of the solar-powered, wireless devices. The technology grew out of Lunar Outpost's work to mitigate the effects of the moon's air quality due to the gritty lunar soil, which is bad for people to inhale and rough on robots' systems.

"Obviously, we need a way to keep the lights on. And two, we wanted to have positive impact in our background," Cyrus said.

And Cyrus would love to see his prospector ferried by companies tapped by NASA to bid on making deliveries to the moon. Lockheed Martin and another Colorado company, Deep Space Systems, were designated in November 2018 as eligible to bid to provide Commercial Lunar Payload Services.

"If you look at most lunar rovers, they're the size of mini vans, " Cyrus said. "So, what we're trying to do is bring the cost, the size, the power and all the requirements down from those large rovers so we can actually distribute swarms of them on the lunar surface cost effectively."