Off-Earth Mining - call for topics

Supervisor Name/s: 
Prof Andrew Dempster
A/Prof Serkan Saydam
Research field/s: 
Off Earth Mining

Off-Earth Mining is an extremely diverse topic. The UNSW research initiative in this area encompasses academics from five faculties: Engineering (Electrical, Mining, Mechanical, Computing, Photovoltaics, Civil), Science, Law, Business and Arts & Humanities. Therefore this is a very broad call for interested PhD students. Profs Dempster and Saydam can pass enquiries on to relevant experts.



NASA has a particular interest in developing technologies that will sustain life on Mars, but before that can happen, mining in space is likely first to be useful where those mined resources can find a market in space, such as fuel for keeping communications satellites operating, or water for space tourism. That work will not be done by humans but by relatively autonomous robotic spacecraft. Mining of asteroids and the moon has attracted commercial interest in recent years.

The list of possible research topics below are all to do with reducing the commercial risk of these ventures. They include the entire engineering process (mission design, robotics, prospecting, extraction, processing, delivery) and the creation of markets (business cases, potential products, synergies). Other risks such as the incomplete legal regime and ethical/ environmental/ security issues are also important.

UNSW is vigorously pursuing all aspects of off-earth mining research. This document is thus a catch-all for many topics. Topics not listed here can also be proposed by applicants.



  • Which asteroids to mine?
  • What to mine? (exploration, resource modelling)
  • Optimising trajectories for multiple asteroid missions
  • Fractionated spacecraft/ swarms
  • Infrastructure: Fuel depot / distributions to satellites
  • Which resources are running out: map against which are available via OEM. Rare earth, Indium?
  • Cost of return: if resources are brought back to earth, how is it done? What vehicles are used?


Mining Technology

  • Drone sensors – on-board processing
  • Drone sensors – data analytics/ decision making
  • Drone sensors – space modifications
  • Asteroid grand challenge – what crowd-sourcing is already happening, how can it be exploited and what else could be done?
  • Which mining method can be used or modified for OEM?
  • Simulation – modify existing UNSW mine simulators for OEM



  • Small propulsion systems for cubesats
  • Ion thrusters powered by photovoltaics
  • Telescopes for prospecting
  • Positioning and Attitude
  • Self organised swarms
  • Use of virtual reality
  • Deep space communications
  • On-board power systems



  • Funding it – venture capital or government? Tax-right-off or royalties? Crowd funding?
  • Supply and demand effects on earth’s markets if returned.



  • How to rewrite the treaties to allow economic expansion?



  • Clean mining
  • Other uses of resources : waste management, infrastructure
  • Development of critical insights (risk, uncertainty, sensitivity) into OEM wrt environmental/ social/ ethical / religious/ traditional / cultural / colonial / philosophical/ legal/ diplomatic / political/ economic / financial dimensions. Other contexts: earth’s shortages of commodities, employment / skills requirements, the aspirational effect of space, societal feedbacks.
  • What would the impacts be on asteroids and Mars?
  • What are the water needs / How is waste handled/ Should bacteria be used / or nanotech / Is uranium an issue?
  • How would the Earth’s atmosphere be affected by excess traffic (e.g. effects of NOx on ozone layer)?


Expected Outcomes

This is very long-term research, but ACSER is working with the two key NASA centres and two asteroid mining companies in an effort to make this ambitious goal a reality.