Space likely for rare earths search, scientists say

Feb 20, 2013 by Amy Coopes
An image of the Moon captured by astronauts on board the International Space Station on October 5, 2001. The quest for rare earths vital to some of modern life's most indispensable technologies may see mining robots jet to the stars within decades, a world-first conference in Australia was told.

The quest for rare earths vital to some of modern life's most indispensable technologies may see mining robots jet to the stars within decades, a world-first conference in Australia was told Wednesday.

Yttrium, and the other 15 minerals which make up the group of elements known as are crucial to everything from and to cruise missiles and the ubiquitous smartphone.

As technology advances so too does demand for the elements which, although relatively abundant, require laborious and waste-intensive processing to be freed from surrounding rock.

They are a precious commodity—so precious scientists are now looking beyond Earth's reaches for new supplies, with moon and asteroid mining becoming a lucrative prospect, according to researchers and tech firms gathered in Sydney for the world's first formal "Off-Earth Mining Forum".

"It's about joining the dots," explained conference convenor Andrew Dempster from the Australian Centre for .

"I think we've got to the point where people are saying 'yeah, I think we can do this'."

A cross-section of the space and 's top minds have gathered to swap ideas about the latest advances in space and mining technology, from and Sandvik to NASA and Japan's .

Rene Fradet, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory—the organisation behind the current Mars Curiosity Rover mission—believes space mining will be possible and economical within 20-30 years.

But Dempster thinks it could be quicker than that.

"Most of the technology already exists, but there needs to be a business case. It depends on making that business case."

Like the challenges, the costs are substantial: to transport one kilogram to the moon is $100,000, and none of the cutting-edge completely automated technology comes cheap.

A self-portrait of NASA's Mars rover Curiosity on February 7, 2013. The quest for rare earths vital to some of modern life's most indispensable technologies may see mining robots jet to the stars within decades, a world-first conference in Australia was told.

One delegate, NASA affiliate Berok Khoshnevis from the University of Southern California, has developed technology to make waterless sulphur-based cement from the loose rubble on Mars and Earth's moon.

Matthew Dunbabin, from the Australia's government's science agency CSIRO, has done a large-scale simulation of using mining machinery in space and told delegates the main issue was electrical power.

Few space missions had attempted significant excavations—the sum total of all NASA's Apollo missions had been 382 kilograms and the Mars programme had netted in the order of "grams", Dunbabin said.

Gravity, temperatures, atmospheric pressure, radiation and the consistency of surfaces themselves all present unique problems, complicated by the fact that operations in space would have to be largely automated and remote-controlled.

Space drilling also throws up the question: who owns the moon's resources?

SingTel Optus lawyer Donna Lawler likened it to the law of the high seas, where energy firms can mine in international waters without claiming territorial ownership.

More than 100 countries including the US have ratified the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which holds signatory nations responsible for activities in space but it is as yet untested.

It may be soon if space mining joins the moon landings in the annals of science fiction-turned-reality.

"There's nothing really science fiction about any of this. In many ways a lot of the technology already exists, I don't think we really have to invent much science," said Dempster.

Explore further: Astronauts to reveal sobering data on asteroid impacts

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alfie_null
not rated yet Feb 20, 2013
SingTel Optus lawyer Donna Lawler likened it to the law of the high seas, where energy firms can mine in international waters without claiming territorial ownership.

How does that work when two mining companies, each from a different country, have a dispute? If the countries don't have good diplomatic relations?
Benni
3 / 5 (4) Feb 20, 2013
What has been overlooked by the author is the fact that the elements under discussion are no more abundant on the Moon than on Earth, we know this because the Moon was once part of the Earth and is therefore composed of all the same "stuff", therefore it will always be more economical to use Earthly sources for many centuries to come.

For the most part those elements are no more abundant on most of the asteroids, and locating the few among the tens of millions in the asteroid belt with sufficient elemental content makes this whole concept a pipedream in the time frame of 20-30 years, maybe a thousand years in the future it can work, but not 20 or 30.
Eikka
3.3 / 5 (7) Feb 20, 2013
the elements under discussion are no more abundant on the Moon than on Earth


Yes, but on the moon you don't run into hippies who try to chain themselves to your bulldozers.

It's nobody's back yard. You can do everything that is politically and environmentally infeasible on earth, including excavating with nuclear bombs if you really want to. Nobody cares if you pollute and leave your tailings in big heaps all over the place, because the whole place is dead rock anyhow.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (5) Feb 20, 2013
How does that work when two mining companies, each from a different country, have a dispute?

Space pirates. (Yay!)

therefore it will always be more economical to use Earthly sources

Probably. Though there are some factors which would make Moon mining attractive. There's no environment to consider which means you can use basically any energy source you want.

And the different geological dynamics on the moon and Earth can still mean that concentrations of deposits vary within a different range (even though the average composition should be roughly identical)

including excavating with nuclear bombs if you really want to

I wouldn't go that far. Radioactive ore might be hard to sell.

and locating the few among the tens of millions in the asteroid belt with sufficient elemental content

Spectroscopic analysis doesn't necessitate a lander. So while the numbers are big a 'flyby' mission through the asteroid belt might uncover interesting targets.
Benni
1 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2013
...the elements under discussion are no more abundant on the Moon than on Earth


Yes, but on the moon you don't run into hippies who try to chain themselves to your bulldozers.


Only for now......the politics of it will remain on planet Earth.

It's nobody's back yard. You can do everything that is politically and environmentally infeasible on earth, including excavating with nuclear bombs if you really want to. Nobody cares if you pollute and leave your tailings in big heaps all over the place


Once again....only for now.

My larger perspective concerns the technology required to identify asteroids from which to extract the desired mineral content. What we'll discover is that it will be fewer than one in several thousand, it will take decades just to sort through & identify asteroids with economically suitable content, this alone will require technology not even in the developmental stages today.
Benni
1 / 5 (1) Feb 20, 2013
and locating the few among the tens of millions in the asteroid belt with sufficient elemental content


Spectroscopic analysis doesn't necessitate a lander. So while the numbers are big a 'flyby' mission through the asteroid belt might uncover interesting targets.


You could locate only "surface deposits" in this manner, but I suppose that could be used as an indicator to narrow down perspective sources of suitable content.
dav_daddy
1 / 5 (1) Feb 20, 2013
What has been overlooked by the author is the fact that the elements under discussion are no more abundant on the Moon than on Earth, we know this because the Moon was once part of the Earth and is therefore composed of all the same "stuff".


Not entirely true. Yes they are both made up of same stuff. However the moon was made up of far more material from earths crust. As such it has a much lower proportion of heavy elements (uranium, lead, iron, etc.) Than the planet proper.

I'm not sure off hand where most rare earths fall on the periodic table but any that are on the lighter side you would expect to be more abundant on the moon than earth.
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 20, 2013
You could locate only "surface deposits" in this manner, but I suppose that could be used as an indicator to narrow down perspective sources of suitable content.

Given that asteroids aren't the process of layering processes where denser material has had time to sink to the center (like on planets) my knee-jerk guess is that especially smaller asteroids would be pretty homogenous in composition. So surface tests should be adequate.
Benni
1 / 5 (1) Feb 20, 2013
What has been overlooked by the author is the fact that the elements under discussion are no more abundant on the Moon than on Earth, we know this because the Moon was once part of the Earth and is therefore composed of all the same "stuff".


Not entirely true. Yes they are both made up of same stuff. However the moon was made up of far more material from earths crust. As such it has a much lower proportion of heavy elements (uranium, lead, iron, etc.) Than the planet proper.


......and it is in the Earth's crust where we do all our mining, not in the mantle.

I'm not sure off hand where most rare earths fall on the periodic table but any that are on the lighter side you would expect to be more abundant on the moon than earth.


The "rare earth's" are heavier, which is the reason they settle away from the Earth's surface to the direction of the core, thus making deposits on the Moon no more abundant in content or easier to extract.
Benni
3 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2013
The "rare earth's" are heavier, which is the reason they settle away from the Earth's surface to the direction of the core, thus making deposits on the Moon no more abundant in content or easier to extract.


I just happened to think of one caveat to this, the "rare earth content" on the Moon should be higher in content than in Earth's present day crust due to the couple of billion years since the Moon material was ejected from its point of origin. This "point" being a time during which heavier metals had not settled as much as they have by this point in time.
dav_daddy
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 20, 2013

I just happened to think of one caveat to this, the "rare earth content" on the Moon should be higher in content than in Earth's present day crust due to the couple of billion years since the Moon material was ejected from its point of origin. This "point" being a time during which heavier metals had not settled as much as they have by this point in time.


Thank you Benni that was the point i was shooting for more or less. You stated it far more clearly than I.

Another factor would also be that when impactors hit the moon the material stays pretty much where it fell. There are literally billions of years worth of asteroid dust just sitting at or near the surface right now!
Sanescience
not rated yet Feb 20, 2013
Ug, this is all very premature. Business tends to shy away from risk. And we are very far yet from understanding how risky dumping a bunch of money into something that might get turned into useless junk in an instant by a hardware malfunction, software glitch, careless human, or just plain bad luck and a micro meteor in the wrong spot.
Moebius
1.8 / 5 (4) Feb 20, 2013
Who didn't want to be an asteroid miner growing up?
dav_daddy
1 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2013
Ug, this is all very premature. Business tends to shy away from risk. And we are very far yet from understanding how risky dumping a bunch of money into something that might get turned into useless junk in an instant by a hardware malfunction, software glitch, careless human, or just plain bad luck and a micro meteor in the wrong spot.


That is a very valid point. Personally I wouldn't invest any money in this that couldn't afford to lose. If I were wealthy enough however the potential up side is huge so who knows.
Yarking_Dawg
5 / 5 (6) Feb 20, 2013
It's a bit of a misinterpretation to say that Earth and the Moon are mineralogically the same. The ratio of different isotopes of non-solar affected elements is very similar, but minerals on the moon are as they were when deposited, usually in forms that are far far easier to refine. Minerals on Earth have been transformed by billions of years of action by water, life, atmosphere and other processes that tends to binds some of them (rare earths in particular) in forms that are more difficult to refine. The prime example is a nickel-iron asteroid. The metals are in pretty much pure form, already refined. On earth, Iron is usually trapped as an oxide or other form that takes significant energy to transform into a useful state.
FrankHerbertWhines
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 20, 2013
....may see mining robots jet to the stars....

what a moron.
DavidW
1 / 5 (2) Feb 21, 2013
http://www.popsci...cks-2015

In case it was missed.
If Dennis Tito is involved it is pretty serious.

My understanding, having contracted work with him in the past, is that he did the calcs. for the Mercury, first Venus and first Mars spacecrafts. He can do some math.

They used my software to build the Phoenix. We can do this. I just hope we don't take all of our problems with us.
Egleton
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2013
Whoever colonises L4 and L5 will claim all of the Cosmos. They will have the keys. The asteroids and the entire Cosmos will be theirs.
The question is, What have you got to offer the Colonists?
You 2 dimensional beings will have little to offer but your genes. I predict that you have got this trade thing all backward.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Feb 21, 2013
Resource search is rare-earth hyped, because of the current supply situation.

As we all know, rare earths aren't really rare as much as dispersed. The Moon should have plenty of accessible REs, but lack the specific RE concentrating environments Earth has. (Hydrothermal vents, muds, et cetera.) http://en.wikiped...elements
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (4) Feb 21, 2013
Whoever colonises L4 and L5 will claim all of the Cosmos.

L4 and L5 are stable in an orbit around the actual points. Many groups can have a lot of stuff (many sattelies, space stations and whatnot) around these points without causing trouble fo each other.

Besides that: there are many langarngians (one for each duo of mass systems. I.e. there are L1-L5 for the Earth-Moon system, L1-L5 for the Earth-Sun system, etc.)

L4,L5 for the Earth-Moon system are actually not all that stable because the sun has significant influence in that region.

Resource search is rare-earth hyped, because of the current supply situation.

Agreed. Nevertheless it will have to be done at some point. Not so much to supply Earth (there's plenty of stuff here), but to supply any kind of off-world bases.
Egleton
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2013
All these phosphates contain high concentration of rare earth elements like the europium and neodymium. Instead of their utilization we are poisoning the soil with these elements.

Typically the environmental movement forces the Industry to remove the toxins from the waste stream, forcing the Industry to make more money.
DavidW
1 / 5 (2) Feb 21, 2013
L4 and L5 are stable in an orbit around the actual points.


antialias_physorg
You have already said nothing is true, then used the word true to make your point on another thread.

If nothing you say is true, then must you continue to post things you don't believe?
DavidW
1 / 5 (1) Feb 21, 2013
Nevertheless it will have to be done at some point.


Why? I can't follow your logic. If truth isn't real then the word "be" has no meaning in your sentence.

Seriously, if you are going to go around telling people nothing is true, then you are going to have to explain how you arrive at these conclusions of your beliefs that have no basis in anything truthful.

I keep say, "We are alive" and that that is an absolute truth, just like if you read this, then you truthfully have read it, just like you will truthfully never be able to change that those events of you reading it or that you were truthfully alive at that moment (ever) are all absolute truths.
The very foundation of your logic is flawed.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Feb 21, 2013
If nothing you say is true, then must you continue to post things you don't believe?

RELATIVE truths can be defined within contexts (which is something I have told you three times already). Truths are contingent on these contexts. Within our context of scientific observability orbist around L4 and L5 are stable.

But not everyone needs it always spelled out that way (do you always need to have it spelled out that 2 and 2 is four ONLY within the context of a particular mathematical axiomatic system and then have all the axioms listed for you? Every time?)

That something is relatively true within a context does not mean it's not useful. Just like when we know that some things aren't deterministic (e.g. coni tosses) we still can have useful statements (truths) about probability distributions.

That stuff isn't absolutely true is a given in an scientific discussion. Restating it is just belaboring the obvious to anyone with minimal education.

DavidW
1 / 5 (2) Feb 21, 2013
We cannot change our past. We are alive. We are equal in this respect. Those are absolute truths. Obvious? Yes! Observed! Yes! Completely ignored in the purpose of your science? Yes!

That's messed up.

Sure, things are relative, but the crux is that you insist that we are absolutely alive and that we can change our own past and that we are not equal under the truth. I have defined the relative terms quite clearly, many times now, for the purposes of relativity. Relativity existing is another absolute truth.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 21, 2013
As I've told you before: alive/non-alive aren't absolute contexts (just quantitative differences - not qualitative ones). So that's not an absolute
That we can't change our past is contingent on the way we view the universe. You can model the universe as a static 4 dimensional object or as a 3D plus time object. That we happen to be confined to relatively uniform motion along on of these dimensions (which we call time) just happens to be so. And that we cannot change our past is contingent upon that context.

So again: no absolute truths. Sorry to burst your bubble.

The only absolute is the universe itself (or if its embedded in a larger context then that larger context) - and that statement is meaningless since it is a tautology (i.e. it carries no information as per information theory).

The biggest possible context has no alternative. Without alternative you have an alphabet of 1.
ld 1 equals 0 bit (ld is the dual logarithm used for information measures in information theory)
jselin
4 / 5 (4) Feb 21, 2013
Antialias, I believe you are the most rational user on this site after reading and posting here for a number of years. If I could I'd buy you a beer. Keep up the good work sir
TheGhostofOtto1923
1.5 / 5 (8) Feb 21, 2013
I wouldn't go that far. Radioactive ore might be hard to sell.
Yeah this is a myth and I am sorry to see you insist on propagating it.

Operation Plowshare explored the peaceful uses of nuclear explosives. One was the gnome shot which created a large cavity. This was occupiable within 6 months.
http://en.wikiped...ct_Gnome

Nuclear explosives WILL be used off-planet for mining and for the creation of subsurface habitats because there is no comparable way of doing these things.

Future gens will thank us for the foresight to have created and stockpiled some 6000 tons of fissile material, arguably the most VALUABLE commodity a civilization at our stage of development can possess.
gOnAd
not rated yet Feb 23, 2013
I dont get this, rare earths are actually enriched in the earth crust as compared to bulk earth and chondritic materials in general. While there could be some high grade REE-ores on the moon (KREEP) or differentiated asteroids, it is very difficult to see how they could be economically extracted and returned to earth cheaper than the abundant %-grade deposits that you can find on earth...it may make sense for extraction and use in space itself, but that is not the scope of this article....
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2013
dont get this, rare earths are actually enriched in the earth crust as compared to bulk earth and chondritic materials in general.
It's indeed perfectly true, but the space-flight agencies seek for some reason for cosmic flights desperately. They do want to paint asteroids, trap them into cages, mine for gold or Unobtainium, whatever... They're facing financial problems one after another because of energetic and subsequent economical crisis.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (4) Feb 24, 2013
If I could I'd buy you a beer. Keep up the good work sir

Thanks. Always nice to be appreciated.

ValeriaT
1 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2013
I'm afraid, the most "rational" (aka conservative and schematically thinking) proponents of mainstream science will face hard times by now... They will remain rational and logical, but still deadly wrong.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (5) Feb 24, 2013
I dont get this, rare earths are actually enriched in the earth crust as compared to bulk earth and chondritic materials in general.
-And people are looking at new options here as well. Robotic mining of the ocean floor:
http://www.resour...r-mining

-Probably shares some of the same tech-
sirchick
3 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2013
If we mine the moon or from any where in space, it'll be one of the few moments in time where the Earth gained mass, rather than mass being distributed around due to human's. And the moon will lose mass.

How much do we need to mine from the moon before the gravity difference effects the oceans...
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 25, 2013
it'll be one of the few moments in time where the Earth gained mass

If my google-fu is correct then about 38000-78000tons of stuff (meteorites, dust, ...) fall on Earth each year.

This is offset by roughly the same (95000tons) loss of atmosphere per year. So the net mass loss is pretty negligible.

How much do we need to mine from the moon before the gravity difference effects the oceans...

If we were pedantic: one atom.
If you mean measurable in terms of: "more than a proton atom's width of ocean rise" - then we could keep on mining the Moon for all it's got forever.

The amount of stuff mined on Earth may seem like a big number. But compared to the mass of the Earth (or the Moon) it's so incredibly tiny. Even if we were to mine the Moon on the scale of what we do on Earth today and send it all here it wouldn't show up as a noticeable gravity difference.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Feb 25, 2013
The amount of stuff mined on Earth may seem like a big number. But compared to the mass of the Earth (or the Moon) it's so incredibly tiny. Even if we were to mine the Moon on the scale of what we do on Earth today and send it all here it wouldn't show up as a noticeable gravity difference.
Yah these questions will only ever become relevant when machines begin dismantling moons and such. But since they will never do that, these questions will never be relevant.

Interesting factoid - over 200 tons of stuff was delivered to Mir during it's lifetime that we know of.
sirchick
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 25, 2013
it'll be one of the few moments in time where the Earth gained mass

If my google-fu is correct then about 38000-78000tons of stuff (meteorites, dust, ...) fall on Earth each year.


I said by human cause ;) I'm aware naturally it happens all the time :) Technically we humans have only lowered earth mass from space junk... granted compared to what is entering earth from natural means overall we simply gain mass.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Feb 26, 2013
it'll be one of the few moments in time where the Earth gained mass

If my google-fu is correct then about 38000-78000tons of stuff (meteorites, dust, ...) fall on Earth each year.


I said by human cause ;) I'm aware naturally it happens all the time :) Technically we humans have only lowered earth mass from space junk... granted compared to what is entering earth from natural means overall we simply gain mass.
And so, if you bother to make a comparison, you will maybe realize that human activity can't and won't have any impact whatsoever. Obviously. Which AA was trying to indicate ;(
sirchick
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 26, 2013
it'll be one of the few moments in time where the Earth gained mass

If my google-fu is correct then about 38000-78000tons of stuff (meteorites, dust, ...) fall on Earth each year.


I said by human cause ;) I'm aware naturally it happens all the time :) Technically we humans have only lowered earth mass from space junk... granted compared to what is entering earth from natural means overall we simply gain mass.
And so, if you bother to make a comparison, you will maybe realize that human activity can't and won't have any impact whatsoever. Obviously. Which AA was trying to indicate ;(


I never indicated the consequences would be bad, i merely said it was the first time humans would have ever increased earth mass!

its called an interesting fact. Then I asked how much mining would it take to affect oceans but that was a question for the sake of curiosity.

But if you want to 1 vote interesting facts so be it. Clearly you're in a bad moo
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (4) Feb 26, 2013
And you fail to appreciate the difference between good, bad, and completely irrelevant. Further,
If we mine the moon or from any where in space, it'll be one of the few moments in time where the Earth gained mass,,,How much do we need to mine from the moon before the gravity difference effects the oceans...
your initial premise was flat out wrong.
sirchick
not rated yet Mar 03, 2013
I forgot a single word by mistake then i asked the second part out of curiousity, i didn't think us mining the moon would actually drastically affect earth i just wondered how much would cause catastrophic effects... don't connect the two. They two separate things.

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