The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.
INNOVATION: Deltion partners with NASA contractor
A city once described as a moonscape now boasts expertise to mine the real lunar surface. Sudbury’s Deltion Innovations Ltd., formerly affiliated with the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology, has been developing space mining systems for over a dozen years and is now a step closer to putting its high-tech drilling and excavating equipment into orbit.
Last week, the company announced a new partnership with Neptec Design Group Ltd. of Kanata to collaborate on projects involving space flight systems.
The two companies have worked together in the past, but now have what Deltion CEO Dale Boucher describes as a “strategic alliance.”
The Kanata enterprise has been a prime contractor for Canadian Space Agency and National Aeronautics and Space Administration projects, providing flight machine vision systems and supporting shuttle missions. “They built a laser system to inspect the shuttle before coming down,” notes Boucher.
What his company brings to the table is insight into the equipment needed to bore into the crusts of extraterrestrial bodies to harvest water and minerals.
“We’re providing the knowhow of mining systems,” says Boucher. “Neptec understands the process to create flight hardware, and we’ve got the mining expertise.”
The Deltion announcement comes at a time when a Chinese rover is exploring the surface of the moon, in part to boost national pride, but also to hunt for minerals and rare elements like helium 3.
But that doesn’t mean North American space agencies are giving up on interplanetary travel.
Boucher points out NASA plans to land equipment on the moon in 2018. The Resource Prospecting Mission, as it’s called, would involve digging for water and other potential resources.
That mission would both open up opportunities for commercial applications in space and pave the way for human habitation on the moon — possibly even Mars, to which U.S. president Barack Obama wants to send astronauts by 2030.
The challenge in pulling off such ambitious, long-distance missions, says Boucher, is “the capacity to access mission consumables.” It would be too expensive and cumbersome to carry all the water, oxygen and fuel needed to sustain the space travellers and get them home again.
That’s where space mining comes in. “We can mine water-ice and break it into hydrogen and oxygen, which can be used for both water and fuel,” says Boucher.
Other companies are developing crawling machines to look for water and precious metals. Deltion’s niche is the specific mining tools needed to penetrate the surface of these faraway and challenging environments.
“We’re at the prospecting stage right now,” says Boucher. “We have to drill down to look for the quality and quantity of water-ice on the moon.”
The Deltion drills aren’t actually on the moon, of course. Not yet, anyway.
But Boucher believes that will come in the not-so-distant future. NASA has asked Canada to participate in its 2018 lunar mission, and he can see a Deltion drill aboard a Neptec rover when that day arrives.
In the meantime, the company continues to fine-tune its inventions, using life-size models and simulated lunar rock to test the toughness of its drills.
The technology is similar to the type hard-rock miners use here on terra firma, but adapted to meet the extreme climates, as well as weight and energy considerations, that exist in outer space.
“The temperature of the sub-surface of the moon is -250 C, colder than liquid nitrogen,” says Boucher.
“And we have to drill through clay with 100 watts — less power than runs the lightbulb in your kitchen.”
Whereas miners on the Blue Planet utilize oil and water to lubricate their drills and flush away the cuttings, moon miners “have to do it totally dry,” adds the Deltion CEO.
But despite those challenges, Boucher and his team have managed to create a drill that can “go down two metres and bring out a two-metre core” from the surface of the moon.
That’s different, he says, from other companies that claim to have “drills” but really use equipment that “pulverizes rock.”
Should the 2018 mission go ahead with Deltion lending its mining talent to the operation, the plan would be for the drill and Neptec rover to be operated remotely from CSA headquarters in Quebec, says Boucher.
All of this would lead to economic possibilities — for both a new sector in resource extraction and Sudbury in particular, he notes.
“I don’t see short-term jobs for hard-rock drillers on the moon, because it’s just too expensive to put someone on the moon,” he says. “But I do see a lot of long-term jobs for people involved in prospecting and mine engineering. It’s a sector that’s taking off.”
For the original version of this article, click here: http://www.thesudburystar.com/2013/12/16/sudbury-firm-eyes-role-in-lunar-mining-mission