Moon potential goldmine of natural resources

July 16, 2009 by Jean-Louis Santini
As the Earth's natural resources gradually dwindle, some scientists believe the moon could prove a goldmine for future generations.

As the Earth's natural resources gradually dwindle, some scientists believe the moon could prove a goldmine for future generations.

Forty years after American first walked on the , and as the United States prepares to return astronauts to Earth's nearest neighbor by 2020, it remains an object of fascination and curiosity.

Part of the goal of once again returning to our only satellite, and establishing bases there, is to learn more about its hidden natural resources.

"The moon still has a great deal of scientific information left to be discovered that relates directly to... our understanding of the history of the Earth and early history of other planets," geologist Harrison Schmitt told AFP.

Schmitt landed on the moon in 1972 aboard the Apollo 17, the last to ever touch down on the lunar surface. He is among an elite group of 12 Americans who are the only people to have walked on the moon.

Among the 382 kilos (842 pounds) of rocks and lunar soil brought back by astronauts from the moon during six Apollo missions is a rock that scientists call "genesis," which dates back to around 4.5 million years ago, about the time when the solar system began.

The moon, which has virtually no atmosphere, is effectively a geological blank slate for scientists because it has not had the contact with water and air that has changed the Earth's surface.

"One reason to go back to the moon is to find out whether there is anything of value to be done there... If the answer is yes, you can do economically valuable things and use local resources," said John Logsdon, a curator at Washington's National Air and Space Museum.

America's new lunar program, dubbed Constellation, was launched in 2004 with the intention of establishing a forward operating station for astronauts as well as to seek evidence of water beneath the moon's ground ice.

President has appointed a commission to review the program's cost and goals, but the launch last month of two preparatory lunar modules suggests it is likely to proceed in some form.

Several other countries, including China and Russia, have announced their ambitions to send missions to the moon, which is 384,400 kilometers (238,855 miles) from Earth -- about a four-day trip by space shuttle.

"I think you will see at least Antarctic-like scientific outposts and maybe even larger facilities on the moon, with people spending long durations of time there," Logsdon told AFP.

Schmitt, a former astronaut, noted that the moon's soil is rich in helium-3, which comes from the outer layer of the sun and is blown around the solar system by solar winds.

The element is rarely found on Earth, unlike on the moon, where it is heavily accumulated because it is pushed away by the Earth's magnetic poles.

Helium-3 is highly sought for nuclear fusion, and though the technology is still in its infancy, the element "will ultimately be quite valuable on Earth," Schmitt said.

"It's not the only solution to the accelerating demand for energy that we are going to see on Earth, but it's certainly one of the major potential solutions to that demand."

Reserves of helium-3 on the moon are in the order of a million tons, according to some estimates, and just 25 tons could serve to power the European Union and United States for a year.

The moon is also an ideal location for astronauts to prepare and train for long missions into space, including to Mars, according to NASA.

"Lunar exploration will allow us to test technologies, systems, flight operation and exploration techniques that will reduce the risk and cost of potential future human missions to asteroids, Mars and beyond," the US space agency said.

(c) 2009 AFP

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3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 16, 2009
"Among the 382 kilos (842 pounds) of rocks and lunar soil brought back by astronauts from the moon during six Apollo missions is a rock that scientists call "genesis," which dates back to around 4.5 million years ago, about the time when the solar system began." Correction, 4.5 BILLION years ago, dinosaurs died over 65 million years ago, so it couldn't have been 4.5 million years old.
3 / 5 (4) Jul 16, 2009
@maxmc; maybe they are bible thumpers and really meant 4.5 thousand yrs ago.
2.2 / 5 (5) Jul 16, 2009
ballz. private commerce economics is about private commercial accesibility. until near space (let alone orbital space) is cheap enough to reach for your average upper class american (3k$ for a ticket), the moon will be far too expensive for commercial ventures.

perhaps the government can send a mission to the moon that makes some output, but not profitably, and not any time soon. once the american government starts printing more money to go back to the moon, you know the national debt won't be paid off, the dollar will crash, and then nasa can kiss its ass goodbye, along with the rest of our unnecessary government agencies.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2009
What I don't understand is why they don't just retrofit the current space shuttles to stay in space and act as a transportation system between Earth and the Moon? Strap on some external fuel tanks, put the Altair lander in the cargo bay, and get going. The shuttles never never return to Earth or land on the Moon...they can just transport people. With enough fuel, the shuttle main engines are more than powerful enough to get to the Moon, and the shuttle itself can support 7 people for over two weeks.

The idea seems so simple, I have to be missing something.
4 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2009
"The moon, which has virtually no atmosphere, is effectively a geological blank slate for scientists because it has not had the contact with water and air that has changed the Earth's surface."

Ah but about about the cosmic rays that may envelope them while on the moon...what changes would that make?

"Reserves of helium-3 on the moon are in the order of a million tons, according to some estimates, and just 25 tons could serve to power the European Union and United States for a year."

ok so for 1, thats being a bit greedy, such an endeveavor should include the entire world in its with that beings said, were talking more on the order of, conservatively i think, 120 tons per year for the world.
Thats really not too bad, as it would power the nations of the earth at that estimate for 8,333.3 years if we strip the moon (1000000 tons/120 tons), but if its for fusion, then that is only a future long term solution and doesn't help too much now.

3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 17, 2009
Helium-3 is pie in the sky.

Firstly, 25 tonnes of He-3 for the EU and US is much too small.

That's 25e6/3 = 8.3e6 moles of He-3.

18 MeV * 8.3e6 mole * 6.022e23/mole * 1.602e-19 J/eV = 1.4e19 J.

This is 0.44 kW of heat per person. That's ~50 W of electricity for each person and ~150 W for public uses and industry(homes consume only a quarter to a third of all electricity, the rest is mining, bakeries, street lighting and all that other stuff). If on top of that you're going to add transportation and the chemical industry that now uses coal, oil and gas; you're really screwed. With good energy efficiency and conservation you need about an order of magnitude more.

There is no helium-3 ore on the moon, it's evenly distributed among the lunar regolith "top-soil" of the moon. Without volcanic, biological and hydrological processes you have nothing to concentrate elements into ore and you just get a bland mixture of elements with small variations.

In order to procure these pitiful 25 tonnes you have to mine 3.8*e7 km^2 * 25 tonnes/1e6 tonnes = 950 square kilometers of lunar regolith. You need to heat these tens if not hundreds of millions of tonnes of regolith to 1400 degrees fahrenheit and capture the helium. The helium must then be enriched to get rid of helium-4(which is about a thousand times as abundant as helium-3 on the moon).

D-He3 fusion is not that much easier than D-D fusion and it's harder than D-T fusion. If we get D-D fusion to work we have 60 kW thermal per capita for 10 billion people for 1 billion years sitting right here in sea water and it makes no sense at all to try to mine lunar top-soil.

These 25 tonnes of He-3 represent the same amount of energy as 25 tonnes*18 MeV/190 MeV * (232 g/mole) /(3 g/mole) = 183 tonnes of thorium, fully utilized. That's a trivial amount of thorium and it's certainly technically a lot less demanding to build a molten salt thorium reactor(e.g. LFTR) than trying to fuse anything.

We're never going to get around to using He-3. It doesn't represent a huge amount of energy, it's not significantly easier to fuse than extremely abundant deuterium. It's much harder to use than fissile anything, of which we have millions of tonnes of thorium in high grade ores and trillions of tonnes in low grade junk(10 ppm average in crust; one tonne gives 10 g of thorium, which represents the same amount of heat as generated by burning 120 barrels of oil).
1.7 / 5 (7) Jul 17, 2009
We all know NASA never went to the moon. Watch "a funny thing happened on the way to the moon" and decide for yourselves. Van-Allen radiation belts anyone?

1 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2009
The He-3 is diffused into the top of the regolith. If I recall correctly, the material in the Mare basins is better at retaining He-3 than the highland regions. There *may* be patches of land suitable for He-3 strip-mining.
Since no one knows the economics of fusion energy, I find it rather pointless to speculate about the details of a mining program that will not be feasible within the next 30-40 years.
Other substances from the moon will only be of interest for in situ resource utilization (for lunar bases). The availablility of elements vary from site to site -the South Pole-Aitken crater has minerals that elsewhere are buried under the upper crust.
Some regolith just might contain impact ejecta with minerals brought from the outer asteroid belt, but finding those spots requires extensive prospecting.

The most interesting treasure would actually be very old terrene rocks (impact ejecta from Earth). Since the young surface crust of Earth was subducted long ago, we have no record of the early Earth, apart from some Canadian granite that formed too far underground to have a record of life, such as isotope anomalies.
2.8 / 5 (5) Jul 17, 2009
we will start mining garbage dumps before moon material would be cheap enough.

not to mention, they are idiots who think they live on a planet the size of the littlest prince.

even those wonderful graphs are completely wrong.

malthusian luddites are the kind of people that keep spouting all this..

meanwhile, the earth is too small to give us all the material we need and a disaster is coming. the moon is tiny, and removing millions of tons of material WILL change its orbit and rotation.

then they will yell that we have to ship dirt up there to save it and maybe put rockets like a cartoon to stop its new rotation.

sigh... so silly...

here you can find this kind of thing even here..

For one mineral%u2014copper%u2014researchers at the University of Michigan and Syracuse University have done just that. Their results, reported in the March issue of the journal Geology, show that humans use about 18,000 times more copper each year than Earth manages to put into new deposits.

we are in a closed system floating in a vacuume, earth doesnt manage on our time scales to put much copper from the core onto the surface. (and in fact continental churning is more likely to remove metals and leave light stuff floating as the new crust.

the trick here is given in the same article though.

In the past, estimates of the world's mineral resources have relied on two basic approaches: geologic and economic, said U-M professor of geological sciences Stephen Kesler, a co-author on the paper. Geologic estimates compile data on mineral deposits in well-explored areas and extrapolate into less-explored regions. Economic estimates look at how much of a given mineral resource already has been found, assume that's a representative sample and then use statistical methods to figure out what proportion of Earth's total reserves the sample represents.

can any one tell me why estimates done that way are not valid? well, they can end up discovering a mountain of copper in siberia which is quadruple all the copper ever mined by man... not saying they will, but like discovering the huge reserves of oil in montana recently is much larger than they thought, well, this is a CRAPPY way to guestimate, and a rotten meaningless point to base policy on.

but if your arguing to idiots who dont know better cause they are full of self esteem that their opinions count as muich as empirical truth. and a guestimate and things like weather models are basically opinions in technical form.

and then here they also reveal why all this is very hoaky..

But for most resources, both of these methods provide estimates to depths of only about a kilometer (0.6 mile), ignoring large parts of Earth's 50-kilometer thick crust that might contain important deposits.

so really...they are just estimating the top half mile... then they are claiming we will run out of this material...

and then claiming that instead of going to the second mile (doubling all the avaliable access to material tha mane ever had access to), going to the moon is better.

so the moon is suppoed to be a better source of material and cheap access than the second kilometer?

how about the third, fourth and fifth?

hey... lets say we can go down 20 kilometers inthe future to get ore and material.. heck not only would we find the material, but we would have made a safe garbage dump. anyone think of building huge garbage dumps right near the faults so that the garbate gets subducted in a few million years?

the whole view of all this is predicated on a short term view. polutino doesnt exist on geological scales. polition is not an issue if capialism was not being sucked dry so we dont get access to ASTERIODS (a safer source of material than the moon).

here is a result from a better study.

Earth's copper resources estimated from tectonic diffusion of porphyry copper deposits

The amount of copper in deposits above 3.3 km, a likely limit of future mining, could supply current world mine production for 5500 yr, thus quantifying the highly unusual and nonrenewable nature of mineral deposits.

so if we go below the 1 kilometer mark, we will have enough copper for the next 5500 years if we are wasteful with what we already pull out.

but eventually we will not need new copper... eventually enough will be removed that it will start a cycle.

that is, eventually the surface will have enough copper removed that there will be enough on the surfacve that digging will not be needed any more.

i will say that will be way before we pull out 5500 years worth of copper.

like the malthusians, they never could see fertilizer... they cant see robotics..

they are inverted visionaries.

they are not visonaires at all, their ideas are pedantic at best, and while they pretend to understand technology, they constantly think that whatever period they live in is the end of all invention.. why? cause they are so full of themselves that they think that if they cant conceive it, it wont be.

then they use their social skills and manipulative ability to get lesers to grant them power to play with our lives and make policy.

all on some false sense of hubris and a complete lack of creative ability... a total and complete lack of it. because if they have it, they wouldnt have to peddle pedantic alarmist false facts to make a living.

4 / 5 (1) Jul 17, 2009
son of a bitch dude, spend all day writing did you... :)
5 / 5 (2) Jul 18, 2009
This article is pretty useless as it is. Consider the cost of getting to the moon and back with loads of precious mineral resources. Once you factor that in, this qualifies for the kind of gosh, golly, gee article that Popular Mechanics used to be good at.

Proof that quantity of articles is no substitute for quality of articles. 'Physics' dot org indeed.

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