NASA and the US and European industries have already developed most of the technology needed to return to the moon, and it’s most unlikely Aussie astronauts will be invited along, at least on early missions.
So, what can Australia usefully contribute to NASA’s Artemis program under the new partnership announced with much fanfare during Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to the US?
Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Malcolm Davis said Australia’s expertise in robotics and automation, developed from the mining sector, would be most useful as NASA establishes a permanent human presence on the moon and eventually ventured to Mars.
Unlike the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Artemis won’t be just a “flags and footprints” exercise, Dr Davis said.
After the planned moon landing in the Artemis 3 mission in 2024, NASA’s objective is to establish a permanent human presence on the lunar surface by 2028 over 12 Artemis missions.
Establishing and sustaining moon base facilities will require robotic systems operated remotely from the orbiting lunar Gateway space station or from Earth.
“Under some circumstances, those operations could be managed directly from Australia. Humans and robots will be working side by side on the lunar surface, and Australian companies can contribute directly to those operations,” he said in an article on ASPI’s The Strategist blog.
“Our potential to play a central role in this area doesn’t just end on the moon. Extracting resources from near-Earth asteroids – which can be reached from the moon more easily and cheaply than they can from the Earth’s deep gravity well – is a task for robots, not humans.
“Imagine companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto mining an asteroid – or lunar regolith – for valuable metals, minerals, gases and liquids.”
Dr Davis said there would be no need for people in spacesuits driving diggers as robots conducting the operations could be managed from Australia.
“Our use of robots and autonomous systems in terrestrial mining can be equally applied in space,” he said.
Australia could also contribute to Artemis by supporting Australian companies undertaking leapfrog research and development, which could then generate sustained growth across the entire space industry sector.
Already, private companies and government agencies such as the CSIRO, Geoscience Australia and the Defence Science and Technology Group were conducting research and development in areas that directly support Artemis, he said.
That includes advanced rocket technology, new high-tech materials and space medicine.
Unlike the Apollo missions, almost exclusively run by NASA and supported by contractors, Artemis involves a broad range of commercial companies able to exploit technological innovations coming from the expanding commercial space sector.
“Australia’s space industry companies need to move quickly to benefit from the government’s decision to support Artemis because the return to the moon is set to be just the beginning of a long period of growth in human space activity,” he said.
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