Amid the recent boom in extraterrestrial exploration, a new frontier for private companies and space agencies appears to have emerged: mining the moon for precious resources.
Once thought to be a beautiful but largely barren rock, the moon is now believed by some to be a treasure trove of rich materials that could play a vital role in the Earth’s future.
For instance, space agencies hoping to mine the moon say oxygen in its regolith – or lunar soil – could be used to power life support and fuel rockets in space, while rare metals could be ferried back to Earth to be used in everything from gadgets to construction.
What has got the industry most excited, however, is the Helium-3 isotope that is present in moondust, which has been touted as a possible key to safe nuclear energy.
But despite its hidden treasure, is mining the moon a viable commercial project?
Some private companies think so. Among them is the Cape Canaveral-based Moon Express, which has raised $12.5m (£9.7m) in late 2018 to fund its plan to put robotic landers on the moon with the goal of sending samples back to Earth.
The ultimate goal is to commercialise the resources, according to boss Bob Richards. “We’ll make some of it available to scientific research,” he said. “But we also plan to commoditise it ourselves.”
Moon Express is not alone in looking to mine resources from space. Other companies such as Planetary Resources, backed by Google founders Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, and Japan’s iSpace are making their own progress on mining either the moon or asteroids.
But if potential private miners are expecting immediate returns on what will be an expensive undertaking, they may well be disappointed.
“Companies are assuming that a market will be available,” says Dr Ian Crawford, professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Birkbeck College London. “Which is a problem, because without a market they can’t justify the expense. It will start off smaller than the companies hope.”
The European Space Agency (ESA) recently announced a deal with French rocket maker ArianeSpace to study and prepare for a moon mining mission. The feasibility study is focused on finding out if mining the moon is possible, with the aim to send robotic equipment to mine a small sample by 2025.
The primary motivation for such mining is to broaden the potential of human exploration into space rather than transporting resources back to Earth.
“The strategy is aimed at trying to understand if we can economically exploit resources to support future exploration missions,” says Bernhard Hufenbach, strategy and innovation team leader at ESA.
“From an ESA perspective it isn’t about mining the moon to bring resources back to Earth, I think if that happens it’s a commercial undertaking. We’ve purposefully called for an ambitious timeline. We’re not sure if 2025 is realistic as there are lots of steps that need to be done before.”
Oxygen found in the moon’s regolith could be used in space-faring life-support and refuelling efforts. Fuel could then be transported to nearby stations to allow refuelling following a rocket’s propellant-hungry launch.
Water on the moon, which exists as ice in permanently shadowed craters, could also be an essential resource. In its announcement that it would be returning to the moon by 2024, NASA cited the mining of water as a way of creating oxygen and rocket fuel. And that the moon was a 'checkpoint to what lies beyond'.
The theory goes that finding a way to successfully extract resources from the moon’s surface – be it for those rockets or a potential lunar station – is cheaper and more practical than transporting heavy substances from Earth.
It can cost between $100,000 and $400,000 for every pound of water sent to the moon. There is believed to be an around 600m tons of water on the moon, and transporting that from Earth would cost between $120 quadrillion to $480 quadrillion.
This use of the moon’s resources could be key to the grandiose visions of the world’s billionaires looking to take humanity to the stars.
When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled his Blue Moon lander, the targeted site was the water ice rich Shackleton Crater near the moon’s south pole. The further exploration of space, not to mention Bezos’ far-flung plans for O’Neill colonies in Earth’s orbit, or Elon Musk’s desires to colonise Mars, could hinge on the success of mining research projects such as ESA’s.
“Making it more sustainable is essentially about transporting less mass into space and using local resources which hopefully leads to lower costs,” says Hufenbach. “Then we may have synergies with technologies which could be used by commercial actors to mine the moon for other materials if that would legally be possible one day and if there was a business case.”
While the immediate concern is to use the moon’s resources to further space exploration, Helium-3 is an otherworldly isotope that has long been speculated as a way of producing clean nuclear energy. Its rarity on Earth means it is worth an estimated $3bn per ton.
In theory, the nuclear fusion of Helium-3 would produce a large amount of energy without causing surrounding material to become radioactive. However, the temperature required would be much higher than ‘traditional’ fusion, leading to debates about its viability before successful nuclear fusion has even been achieved.
“It’s a bit premature to decide we have a huge market for Helium-3 when we haven’t proved it works yet,” he says.
There is also some contention about its abundance on the moon. While some reports claim there are 1.1m tonnes of helium-3 on the moon – theoretically enough to power the entire Earth for 10,000 years – other experts such as Dr Crawford are more skeptical.
“It’s true that a tiny fraction of Helium-3 exists in lunar soils,” he says. “Its concentration varies, about 4 parts per billion on average, but even in a relatively well concentrated area it would be 10 in a billion. The concentration is quite low.”
The other problem, says Dr Crawford, comes from extracting the isotope from the moon dust. “You’d imagine huge combine harvester like tractors scooping up regolith,” he says. “Then you need to heat it up which takes a lot of energy. Just to extract a small amount of Helium-3 would be a huge undertaking.”
Never the less, countries such as China and India have shown interest in the potential of Helium-3. China landed its Chang'e 4 lunar rover on the far side of the moon in January – the first time a ‘dark side’ landing has been achieved – with the purpose of measuring the chemical compositions of rocks and soils. This could give a more definitive answer to the question of just how resource rich the lunar surface is.
However, if moon mining moves from theory to practice there could be contention over the legal issues of claiming moon materials.
Both from national agencies, potentially giving their country exceptional energy resources, and private companies. Article II of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty currently says that the moon is "not subject to national appropriation". But the treaty, drawn up during the heightened tensions of the Cold War and the US-Soviet space race, is widely thought to be outdated and stifling current space exploration efforts.
“There is a lot of work required on the legal side in order to define the right framework,” says Hufenbach. “That has to take place. To some extent maybe the work we do in Research and Development may inform the debate on legal issues. But if in the future there is a business case for mining the moon or even asteroids, there is a lot of legal framework that needs to be done.”
There is also the ethical and environmental question of whether it is right to move on to strip mining the moon after using up so much of Earth's own resources. “It depends on the general policy for utilising the moon in the long term, whether it’s meant to be a place which can be economically exploited or if it’s meant to be a heritage of mankind,” says Hufenbach.
Crawford argues that it could be ethically right to mine the moon. “There is an environmental case for using space resources,” he says. “Rare Earth Elements can be environmentally damaging to mine and refine. You could argue that if in the future we could extract rare Earth elements from the moon or asteroids, then it would be environmentally preferable to mine from dead rocks in space than from our own planet.”
But before any ethical discussion, there is much work ahead to confirm how feasible mining on the moon is. While we might not be experiencing a lunar gold rush just yet, the world’s best minds are firing on a fascinating aspect of this new chapter of mankind’s journey to the stars. And if feasible, it could be our key to the galaxy.