Palabora open pit
International engineering firm AMEC is working with ESA to improve monitoring of ground subsidence linked to mining activity. Radar satellites in orbit 800 kilometres away can reveal millimetre-scale elevation shifts across wide areas of land.
The largest man-made hole in Africa is located 360 kilometres north-east of South African capital, Pretoria. The Palabora copper mine was excavated open-cast for 38 years: the end-result is easily visible from space: a yawning pit approaching 2000 metres in diameter and 762 metres deep (more than 230 metres beneath sea level).
In 2002 owner Rio Tinto declared the pit’s depth meant surface extraction was now uneconomic, instead developing an underground mine to work the copper ore beneath the pit bottom. The decision was good news for the regional economy, as it should extend the life of the mine and associated copper smelter and refinery by at least another 20 years.
Mining at Palabora uses a highly-efficient method called ’block caving’. It is based on extracting thin blocks of rock to induce large-scale cave-ins in overhanging ore. However, even though the excavations are being carried out more than a kilometre underground, last year they induced dramatic surface instabilities. More than 60 million tonnes of mass collapsed into the pit from its north wall, with movements of up to two metres in the vicinity and cracking as far as 300 metres away from the pit rim.
Pierre-Philippe Mathieu | alfa
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