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EXPLORATION

December 12, 2018

Drilling Beyond Earth

A little more than once in a blue moon, you read a news story about the possibility of mining on the lunar body, capturing water from a speeding asteroid, or even settling a distant planet. Star Wars, Star Trek and a plethora of other books, movies, and television series have entertained us for decades about the potential beyond the limitations of our terra-based existence. Although we haven’t exhausted the resources within our own planet (think Interstellar), we love to look to the stars and dream.

But it’s not just science fiction anymore as we see the likes of Elon Musk and his SpaceX advancements that launched a Tesla Roadster car into outer space back in February 2018, or the latest NASA InSight module landing perfectly on Mars at the end of November 2018. Not long ago in 1969, NASA’s Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Imagine with the acceleration in technology and human capability where we might go in the next few decades.

So why look at mining outside of Earth? Many reasons are proposed as to why we should mine in space. Mineral resources are vast in outer space and could be used to build new colonies or help to fuel and propel space exploration even farther afield.

So why look at mining outside of Earth? Many reasons are proposed as to why we should mine in space. Mineral resources are vast in outer space and could be used to build new colonies or help to fuel and propel space exploration even farther afield.  

As early as the mid-1950s, Boart Longyear was already involved in developing equipment for the space race. As part of a special project team in 1955 and 1956, Boart Longyear engineers worked as subcontractors to NASA’s primary contractor, Westinghouse Electric, to design a drill, mounting, diamond bit, core barrel, and drill rods for lunar exploration. The project was called “Development of a Sub-Surface Drill System for Post Apollo Mission.” Westinghouse Electric’s responsibility was to develop the electrical system to power the drill’s operation. Westinghouse was involved with many NASA projects and later went on to develop the slow-scan Apollo TV Lunar Camera used to film Armstrong’s “Giant leap for mankind.”

The core drill project required thinking outside our atmosphere to a place where tools could operate within a vacuum with lower gravity and varying temperatures. The Boart Longyear team was tasked with drilling without a circulating fluid while being able to maintain bit operating temperatures, remove any cuttings, and retrieve lunar core samples. A ‘Moderate Depth Lunar Drill’ was designed that would be capable of taking core samples to depths of 100 feet. Testing of the specially designed lunar drill prototypes were conducted in Westinghouse’s 40-foot deep vacuum chamber with early results proving successful. Although the ultimate test would have been actual lunar exploration, NASA abandoned the project as their path took another direction and the drill was placed in storage.

In addition to the lunar drill, considerable work was performed by Boart Longyear in the late 1960s and early 1970s to develop space-worthy auger drill strings and drill bits. More than 80 specialized diamond drill bits of 14 types were tested in drilling basalt across a range of compressive strengths and hardness and over a wide range of speeds and loads. This style of bit was “surface set” with the crown matrix impregnated with diamonds and bonded to a steel body. The success of these early prototypes added to Boart Longyear’s proven track record and history of innovation.

Decades later, these drilling accomplishments were again recognized in the space exploration industry by JPL-Caltech as the company invited Boart Longyear to contribute its drilling expertise to the Mars 2020 Rover program as part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. For this project, engineers worked on a “monolithic” dry-auger impregnated diamond drill bit. The bit was cast as one piece with impregnated diamonds in the crown portion and tungsten and metal in the auger body portion. This bit was successfully tested on various rock types including granite.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The current Mars InSight lander includes instruments to drill down to approximately 16 feet below the surface to measure and help scientists determine Mars’ heat temperatures. According to NASA’s Mars InSight Mission website, “That's deeper than previous instruments to any other planet, moon, or asteroid, which have only ever dug through the upper inch of rock or soil.”

Boart Longyear engineers continue to pioneer new technologies in the mining industry that are taking exploration even deeper and farther and with more efficiency and greater results. Is “Space: the final frontier”? What is being learned on Earth, can be adapted and taken into space and underwater exploration. 

Amazing technology and an appetite for discovery continues and space travel and exploration is breaking through that barrier bringing us to the reality that mining in outer space is not just for the galaxies far, far away. Before we know it, virtual remote drilling could help us discover those precious diamonds in the sky.

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Andrew Cuthbert

MEET THE AUTHOR Andrew Cuthbert Andrew's background includes more than 20 years of marketing and communications experience with 16 years in global roles within the mining industry. He has been editor of an industry publication and currently enjoys writing and contributing to articles on Insite. He holds an MBA with an emphasis in marketing and a bachelor’s degree in communications.  

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