Mine The Moon For Valuable Resources?

We heard yesterday from analysts who are wringing their hands over a coming mineral supply problem. A family of metals called rare earth elements and several others are critical for the machines that power the fledgling green economy. From the neodymium needed for the magnets in wind turbines and electric motors to the lithium at the heart of rechargeable batteries, geopolitical factors and a lack of recycling could combine to mean supplies don’t meet demand in the years to come.

But some scientists, engineers and others say they have a solution that’s out of this world. Their idea? Mine the moon.

Bernard Foing, who led Europe’s first mission to the moon and is now head of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group, says the idea is tantalizing because the moon’s composition is very similar to Earth’s. Because some places always receive sunlight, he says, a program could land a purely solar-powered mission there. “One day, we are going to have a fleet of satellites in orbit around the moon and also rovers on the surface that can mine it,” he says.

The lunar composition includes aluminum, platinum, helium, magnesium, silicon, iron, olivines, pyroxenes and, yes, rare earth elements (REE).

“Yes, we know there are local concentrations of REE on the moon,” said Carle Pieters, a Brown University planetary scientist and principal investigator for NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) experiment, in a statement. “We also know from the returned samples that we have not sampled these REE concentrations directly, but can readily detect them along a mixing line with many of the samples we do have.”

Robert Böhme is leading a team called Part-Time Scientists that is working to get up close and personal with the moon. They are one of 18 groups participating in the Google Lunar X Prize, which is offering $30 million for the first team to land a robot there, have it move 500 meters on, above or below the surface and send video back to Earth. Among other reasons for running the competition, Google says, is to figure out how to make it easier and lower costs to bring back valuable resources.

“We want to land a commercial robot on the moon by next year,” says Anita Heward, the European outreach manager for Google Lunar X Prize. “It’s all very exciting.”

In a discussion on June 23 held at the 2014 Euroscience Open Forum in Copenhagen, Heward said the competition aims to open up commercial exploration of the moon and develop access to its untapped resources. Böhme says his group is also testing autonomous waypoint navigation that would be critical for bot miners in the absence of a GPS satellite constellation overhead. He argues that making the moon a viable stopping place is important for more than resource exploitation alone; a base there will be important for the future of human space travel because building and sending craft from the lunar surface would be easier than launching from Earth.

Britta Thomsen, a member of the European Parliament from Denmark, says supporting such exploration endeavours is important. This is regardless of the fact that the legality of private companies taking lunar resources for profit is still unclear. “Technology developed for exploration is, by definition, innovative,” she says. “These come to have valuable uses back on Earth. What we need in Europe is this innovation. But what about these private companies? New legislation must be discussed.”

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