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Mines Team Gets NASA Funding For Intelligent Drilling System

An intelligent drilling system capable of characterizing materials as it drills into the lunar or Martian surface is under development at Colorado School of Mines.

A team of three Mines professors, led by Jamal Rostami, Haddon/Alacer Gold Endowed Chair in Mining Engineering and director of the Earth Mechanics Institute, has received NASA funding for the project. Co-investigators are Bill Eustes, associate professor of petroleum engineering, and Christopher Dreyer, research assistant professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the Center for Space Resources. 

The NASA Early Stage Innovation funding, announced last month, will provide up to $500,000 over three years for the development of the drilling system, which will use artificial intelligence and pattern recognition to identify materials in real time.

“Normally, we have to drill, get a sample, test and then characterize. That takes time and it’s expensive,” Rostami said. “Our project is about developing a system that can monitor drilling parameters and, by analyzing data, immediately see what it is going on in the subsurface and know if you’re in compacted soil, frozen soil, rocks and so on.”

That real-time functionality could be particularly useful in permanently shadowed regions of the Moon, where ice is known to exist and temperatures can fall as low as 40 Kelvin, or minus 233 degrees Celsius. That ice has been proposed for use in rocket propellant to fuel space missions but scientists don’t know how deep the layer of icy regolith goes, Dreyer said.

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“It could all be right at the surface,” Dreyer said. “To really understand the regions for eventual large-scale acquisition of resources, you need to study the entire area. It would be far too much material to return back to Earth. Imagine taking a core from a 40 Kelvin-region and trying to return it to Earth keeping it at 40 Kelvin the entire time. The more you can do in-situ, the better.”

Mines alum Steve Nieczkoski ’86, CEO of Thermal Space in Boulder, is a specialty subcontractor on the project and will advise the group on material behavior at cryogenic temperatures.

And while the drilling system is being developed for use on the Moon and Mars, the technologies could have an impact much closer to home, too, Eustes said.

“In oil and gas, there’s been tests with near-bit sensors that can actually identify fractures and lithology changes but unfortunately it’s not real time,” Eustes said. “Whatever we develop here will be useful on the Moon, on Mars but also out in the DJ Basin. Being able to characterize what’s going on downhole by just looking at data coming off the drill will be extremely useful not only for Martian and lunar drilling but Earth operations also.”

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For Mines, the grant builds on the work already being done to apply the university’s deep knowledge of terrestrial resources beyond Earth’s atmosphere, including the soon-to-launch space resources graduate program and two other projects recently funded by NASA: a feasibility study of commercial space-based solar power and research into the dynamic networking of small spacecraft.

“Exploration is the first phase in any mining and construction operation,” Rostami said. “This piece of equipment could be at the forefront of the exploration activities on extraterrestrial resource development.”

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