Fifty years ago, geopolitical chest-puffing spurned a competition between the United States and Russia to see who would land on the moon first. Today, a new race has commenced — this one driven primarily by the economics of moon mining. Water, rare elements and metals exist on the moon, according to NASA, and governmental and private space entities are betting on the potential profit of these space resources. They could be harvested for use on Earth, or they could help to build and power lunar habitats that could serve as way stations to nearby asteroids, as well as Mars and beyond. How companies might undertake such a venture and return high-value materials to Earth remains to be seen. But entrepreneurs from private and public agencies are making the case that moon mining could preserve our planet’s own resources and create new opportunities for exploring the solar system.
Moon Metals and More
Black and white images from the first moon landing in 1969 show a cratered, seemingly barren landscape. But NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2009, has revealed a surface rich in solar resources. Using several instruments to study the moon’s surface — including ones that measure elevation, collect ultraviolet and visible light images, detect hydrogen and measure surface and subsurface temperatures and frost — the orbiter gathered data revealing the prevalence of important elements, minerals and water.
It should come as no surprise that common minerals, including basalt, iron, quartz and silicon, have been detected on the moon, according to NASA. The more common resources could be turned into buildings, windows, stoneware, solar panels and more, reports Popular Science.
Other scarce materials have also been discovered. Precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium are highly conductive and could be used in electronics. In 2011, scientists reported that they had discovered titanium ore, 10 times richer than that found on Earth, says NASA. When mixed with aluminum or iron, titanium makes an alloy that is lightweight, corrosion-resistant, incredibly strong and resistant to extreme temperatures. It could be used to build a variety of items, such as engines, medical implants and structural frames.
There are 17 rare metals that are scant to find on earth but may be found on the moon. These moon metals include scandium, ytttrium and others, which could be used in vehicle engines, to make glass or ceramics, electronic devices, radar systems, superconductors and more. Even rarer is helium-3, a gas that could be used as a clean and powerful fuel for nuclear fusion reactors. And then there’s water. Thought to be trapped in lunar ice hidden deep in the shadow of polar craters, water could be turned into oxygen and rocket fuel.
Robots, 3-D Printers and Optical Mining
Earth’s only natural satellite contains a wealth of possibilities. Getting there is another matter. According to IEEE Spectrum, new technology around rockets, reusable stages and crew capsules will need major funding. So, too, will lunar cargo landers that can pick up resources on the moon and return them to Earth. NASA has issued contracts for these machines to the companies Astrobotic Technology and Intuitive Machines. Eventually, building on the moon will require a range of technology that can construct everything from habitats to communications.
Planning is underway. For the first time, the U.S. Geological Survey started seriously evaluating space resources for future mining. Last year, they began attending the Space Resources Roundtable held at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado. There, they helped assess the location and value of minerals, energy and water on the moon, Mars and asteroids, reports Space.com.
Private companies have also begun drawing up blueprints to start mining space resources, according to Yahoo Finance. Moon Express, for instance, received a license from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2017 to land on the moon and set up a commercial space station. It’s now developing a family of scalable robotic explorers that could deliver scientific and commercial payloads to the moon or be chartered for expeditions to other worlds. Meanwhile, Planetary Resources, which is focused on asteroids, has planned data-gathering satellite missions to visit multiple near-Earth asteroids and assess their mineral and water content. Space.com notes that, in 2016, the company partnered with 3D Systems to demonstrate that metal extracted from a meteorite — the same material that would presumably be found on asteroids — could be 3D-printed into useful objects. Habitats could also be printed.
In the meantime, NASA is investing billions of dollars in developing technology around space mining. This past May, the agency announced the winner of its 3D-printed Mars Habitat Challenge, showing it was possible to turn resources on the moon or Mars into shelters. In June, NASA announced it was moving forward with two mission concepts designed to explore lunar craters and mining asteroids. The first, called Skylight, proposes technologies to rapidly survey and model lunar craters. The second, called Mini Bee, aims to demonstrate a technique known as optical mining, which uses concentrated sunlight to forces gases out of asteroids and use them as rocket propellant.
Benefits to All Humanity
Although technology is a major aspect of exploring and mining space resources, some experts have raised concerns about the ethical consequences of such an undertaking. An April 2019 study published in the journal Acta Astronautica makes the case that the world should limit space development to one-eighth of the solar system and leave the rest “wild.” Although that fraction may sound small, the scientists say that one-eighth of the iron in the asteroid belt is “more than a million times greater than all of the Earth’s currently estimated iron ore reserves, and it may well suffice for centuries.”
Another group, called the Moon Village, launched in 2017 to establish an international consortium. Comprised of private industry members, government representatives and members of the public, the group seeks to ensure that the moon is developed in a sustainable, open and peaceful way. It was started by Giuseppe Reibaldi, who spent 35 years at the European Space Agency, and is run by many experts from the space community, including John Mankins, former Chief Technologist for Human Exploration and Development of Space at NASA, Jan Kolar, founder and director of the Czech Space Office, and Tai Sik Lee, a professor at Hanyang University and founder and CEO of the International Space Exploration Research Institute.
In an opinion piece in The Conversation, bioethicist Evie Kendal raises questions around the exploration and settlement of the moon. They center on issues such as using the moon as a base for planetary defense, health and safety issues around tourism, conducting medical research there, worker safety, regulations around extracting resources and citizenship questions about babies born on the moon.
Earth’s rocky satellite has always served to inspire humanity. Its very existence has instilled a sense of discovery and desire to journey into worlds unknown. As the population grows on our home planet, it will be important to preserve its resources by seeking out alternate sources. But many technological and ethical issues must still be answered before humanity begins a serious effort to explore the moon and beyond. Establishing the groundwork for peaceful development now could go a long way toward bringing nations together under one, unified plan that benefits all humankind.