Across history, human development has relied upon the finite resources available on Earth. But the moon – a seemingly barren rock – may actually be a treasure trove of rare resources vital to Earth’s future.

And now, nations are looking upwards to a potential lunar gold rush…

how moon mining would work

 

Why mine the moon?

Geological surveys show that the moon contains 3 crucial elements:

WaterVital for supporting life and agriculture beyond Earth; can be converted into rocket fuel
Helium-3 (3He)Rare element sought for future developments in energy sector like nuclear fusion
Rare earth metals (REMs)The fifteen lanthanides, as well as scandium and yttrium – used in modern electronics and mostly produced in China

Smartphones, computers and medical equipment: all of these rely on valuable materials like copper, aluminum, iron and REMs.

REMs are vital to emerging technologies.

90% of the world’s REM supply is produced in China

Yet

15-20 years: how long China claims its reserves may last for

How could it work?

At this stage, it’s still guesswork – most proposals have resembled the Underpants Gnomes’ business model:

Phase 1Phase 2Phase 3
Go to the moon?Minerals

SpaceX is trying to solve the problem of launch costs with reusable rockets – so assuming that works, a hypothetical lunar mining colony might look like this:

  1. 3D printers

Moon mining requires infrastructure before it can even begin. One solution is to manufacture material on the moon using 3D printers (of course, we’d still need to get the materials up there).

  1. Helium-3 storage facility

Ferrying vast amounts of lunar soil to Earth for processing is impractical. Gas will be generated on the moon and captured in storage containers.

  1. Robot miners

Self-sufficient robots that require minimal human oversight will be vital to cost-effective mining operations.

  1. A lunar base

Given the presence of water on the moon, this opens the potential for a long-term human presence.  Printed bases remove the problem of logistics.

What effect would it have on the moon?

The moon has a mass of 73q tons.

Some back-of-the-envelope calculations shows that if 1 metric ton was removed entirely from the moon each day, it would take 220m years to deplete 1% of the moon’s mass.

This wouldn’t be enough to cause a change of orbit or affect the gravitation that causes tides.

The biggest concerns are environmental damage and the ethical consequences of moon-mining.

Considerations include:

  • Impact on future generations
  • Importance of the moon’s role in human culture
  • Visual impact from Earth
  • Stakeholders in lunar heritage

“Who are stakeholders in that heritage? That pretty much means every single person on earth. Everyone has some attachment to the moon.”

– Dr. Alice Gorman

Space archaeologist

Will it happen?

According to the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, no nation can claim ownership of the moon.

However, space law experts question whether the treaty could prevent private ownership – there’s nothing stopping miners claiming property rights and using the moon as a commercial venture.

The reality is, until we get there and fight it out, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Sources

Brooks, M. (2014). Who owns the moon? We’re just going to have to get up there and find out. newstatesman.com

Crawford, I. (2014). Why we should mine the moon. iflscience.com

David, L. (2015). Is moon mining economically feasible? space.com

David, L. (2010). Is mining rare minerals on the moon vital to national security? space.com

European Space Agency (2015). Helium-3 mining on the lunar surface. esa.int

Gorman, A. (2013). Managing heritage values in lunar and asteroid mining: what are the issues. acser.unsw.edu.au

International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (2005). Nomenclature of inorganic chemistry. web.archive.org

Milligan, T. (2013). Scratching the surface: the ethics of Helium-3 extraction. International Academy of Astronautics. uhra.herts.ac.uk

NASA (2014). Earth’s moon: overview. nasa.gov

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2014). Lunar cargo transportation and landing by soft touchdown (Lunar CATALYST): capability development. nasa.gov  

Nuwer, R. (2014). What is the world’s scarcest material? bbc.com

Santini, J.L. (2014). NASA bets on private companies to exploit moon’s resources. phys.org

Siceloff, S. (2013). Engineers building hard-working mining robot. nasa.gov

Siegelbaum, D. (2014). The companies vying to turn asteroids into filling stations. bbc.co.uk

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