How Earths Mineral Deposits are Found and Removed

The current methods for exploitation of mineral concentrations have changed greatly from the those used even a hundred years ago, with the possible exception of the quest for gold or precious gemstones. Advances in geoscience, the invention of aviation, space flight, electronics, computers and the internal combustion engine have largely replaced the lonely prospector with a mule and a pick.

The modern technique for mining minerals can be divided into the following six processes:

1. Geoscience. The surveys performed by aircraft and satellites such as the Landsat program. Multispectral and Thermal Mapping imagining systems in the Landsat 7 can detect minerals over areas of about 1 to 14 square kilometers, the Worldview-2 launched in 2009, has resolution to about 1/4 square kilometer. How multispectral remote sensing works.

2. Exploration. The prospecting or ground truthing to refine and verify the results of the aerial and satellite surveys. Portable spectral imaging equipment that is hand held, backpacked or carried by a drone aircraft is used and all the collected data is formatted to describe the geology of an area.

3. Discovery. Field work to determine quality, quantity and economic viability. Includes core drilling and surface collection of samples, and assays to determine locations and concentrations of ore veins.

4. Development. Feasibility studies, environmental impact studies, and engineering studies to determine economic viability and techniques needed to remove and process the mineral containing ore. Raising capital and construction of infrastructure like roads, bridges and structures needed for mining operations.

5. Production. The removal of the ore from the ground, the tunneling or removal of overburden in an open pit mine. The milling and processing of the ore to refine it to a base state usable by other industries or processes. The extraction of base metals from the ore.

6. Reclamation. Returning the land to productive uses. Grading and replacement of topsoil and reforesting or replanting native flora. Protecting groundwater and surface water from future contamination.

Production processes are becoming automated and semi-autonomous with drilling machines allowing the operator to remotely control drilling operations, removing them from hazardous areas. Driver-less hauling vehicles that operate autonomously networked together for optimum efficiency, and under development are autonomous loaders that, when available, will remove people almost entirely from mining and provide an automated system for ore removal and processing.

The recent mars rover Curiosity in operation now is a fully autonomous mineral exploration machine that includes the ability to process samples. There are prototype processing plant instruments for fully automated recovery of oxygen or water from lunar regolith, here and here. These coupled with an autonomous loader and integrated together would comprise a complete autonomous mining system capable of operating in an extra terrestrial environment.