Mining the moon becomes a serious prospect

February 2, 2015
This is a composite image of the lunar nearside taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in June 2009, note the presence of dark areas of maria on this side of the moon. Credit: NASA

With an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of water ice at its poles and an abundance of rare-earth elements hidden below its surface, the moon is rich ground for mining.

In this month's issue of Physics World, science writer Richard Corfield explains how private firms and space agencies are dreaming of tapping into these lucrative resources and turning the moon's grey, barren landscape into a money-making conveyer belt.

Since NASA disbanded its manned Apollo missions to the moon over 40 years ago, unmanned spaceflight has made giant strides and has identified a bountiful supply of at the north and south poles of the moon.

"It is this, more than anything else," Cornfield writes, "that has kindled interest in mining the moon, for where there is ice, there is fuel."

Texas-based Shackleton Energy Company (SEC) plans to mine the vast reserves of water ice and convert it into in the form of hydrogen and oxygen, which would then be sold to space partners in low Earth orbit.

As the company's , Dale Tietz, explains, the plan is to build a "gas station in space" in which rocket propellant will be sold at prices significantly lower than the cost of sending fuel from Earth.

SEC plans to extract the water ice by sending humans and robots to mine the lunar poles, and then use some of the converted products to power mining hoppers, lunar rovers and life support for its own activities.

Moon Express, another privately funded lunar-resources company, is also interested in using water ice as fuel – but in a different form. It plans to fuel its operations and spacecraft using "high-test peroxide" (HTP), which has a long and illustrious history as a propellant.

As for mining the rare-earth elements on the moon, China is making the most noticeable headway. The Jade Rabbit lander successfully touched down on the moon in December 2013 and the Chinese space agency has publicly suggested establishing a "base on the moon as we did in the South Pole and the North Pole".

With a near-monopoly on the dwindling terrestrial rare-earth elements, which are vital for everything from mobile phones to computers and car batteries, it is no surprise that China may want to cast its net wider.

"All interested parties agree that the – one step from Earth – is the essential first toehold for humankind's diaspora to the stars," Corfield concludes.

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29 comments

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geoscientist
3.8 / 5 (8) Feb 02, 2015
Rare-earth elements aren't actually rare. Even the rarest of the rare-earth minerals is actually 200 times more abundant on earth than gold. The only reason China dominates the world market for rare-earth minerals is that they do not have stringent environmental standards that for most miners makes producing rare-earths almost economically impossible. The shortage of rare earth minerals is not a geologic problem, it is a political problem created by regulatory distortions.
sizzlerjoe1
1.4 / 5 (7) Feb 02, 2015
take your best pics of the moon soon people. when they start mining the moon, it wont ever look like it does again, with all the litter, crap left behind from dig sites drying up, broken machinery, dead minernauts and landscape destruction. I wonder how many will die in the processes ? and how and If the rich of mining it will mourn for them. hmm
cjn
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2015
Anyone know how the lack of active plate tectonics impacts the distribution and accessibility of desirable minerals on the moon?
prichardoutdoors
1 / 5 (8) Feb 02, 2015
Does anyone know what the moon actually does for the earth? If anything is done to change the mass of this lunar body through mining or any other man-made source of destruction, the earth will be in peril. It could offset the balance of the lunar tides and cause horrific storm surges and sea rise. It might even throw the earth off of its own axis. If they want to "jack" with a moon, use one of Jupiter's or pummel the planet Mars.
Thirteenth Doctor
4 / 5 (4) Feb 02, 2015
Does anyone know what the moon actually does for the earth? If anything is done to change the mass of this lunar body through mining or any other man-made source of destruction, the earth will be in peril. It could offset the balance of the lunar tides and cause horrific storm surges and sea rise. It might even throw the earth off of its own axis. If they want to "jack" with a moon, use one of Jupiter's or pummel the planet Mars.


Unless it is catastrophically destroyed I don't see any change for us on Earth. Think about it, we've been plundering this Earth for its resources for millenia. Not so much change as far as orbit.
teslaberry
2.8 / 5 (5) Feb 02, 2015
ugh. the only reason to travel to the moon is
1) to do basic science
2) to reignite cold war space race type shit, that is frankly boring to anyone interested in good science, which means AFFORDEABLY AND FRUGAL SCIENCE.

unmanned remote control technology, bandwidth, signal latency and robotic capabilities mean that man doesn't belong in space at all anymore, not even for conducting basic science. we can do everything remotely.

until mining here on earth is almost entirely unmanned (which it isn't yet) , we have no reason to believe we are yet read to PROFITEABLY mine minerals off the planet, or even, in shallow underwater submarine sediments ( which many people have been saying should be profiteable decades ago and are STILL trying to get money for)

or, you could just learn about the economics of the mining industry and find out that mining asteroids or the moon for profit (not for space station construction) is absurd nonsense.
hyongx
1 / 5 (4) Feb 02, 2015
"Texas-based Shackleton Energy Company (SEC) plans to mine the vast reserves of water ice and convert it into rocket propellant in the form of hydrogen and oxygen,"

The energy required to melt ice and split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel would be ASTRONOMICAL.
I suppose SEC is planning that they will have fusion reactors by this point.
If we have fusion reactors will we still need liquid H / O fuels for rockets?

Solon
5 / 5 (5) Feb 02, 2015
"The energy required to melt ice and split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel would be ASTRONOMICAL.
I suppose SEC is planning that they will have fusion reactors by this point.
If we have fusion reactors will we still need liquid H / O fuels for rockets?"

What's wrong with using solar concentrators, surely all that raw sunlight, almost continual at the poles, some lightweight parabolic reflectors, why the need for fusion reactors?

rp142
5 / 5 (4) Feb 02, 2015
Bases on the moon for to support further space travel and exploration make sense. Mining the moon to support this and to provide valuable resources on earth seems reasonable. It might be a good location for refining the raw minerals recovered from asteroids.

Environmental damage is not an issue on the moon. There is no wildlife habitat loss, risks to local human population or future use of land used for mining. Better to do the mining up there than down here.

Space exploration is pathetically slow and extremely expensive. Adding a commercial incentive to space will help basic scientific research and exploration. Just look at how much more effective the current commercial players are compared to the NASA dinosaur and the space agencies of other nations.
Uncle Ira
2.4 / 5 (7) Feb 02, 2015
Does anyone know what the moon actually does for the earth? If anything is done to change the mass of this lunar body through mining or any other man-made source of destruction, the earth will be in peril. It could offset the balance of the lunar tides and cause horrific storm surges and sea rise. It might even throw the earth off of its own axis. If they want to "jack" with a moon, use one of Jupiter's or pummel the planet Mars.


How much moon stuff would we have to bring down here to do all that Skippy? If you can not answer that simple question, maybe on the up trip we can take up a lot garbage and coal ash and nuclear wastes and fill in the holes we dig up there so it will all balance out.
kochevnik
3 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2015
Moon will make an excellent ark to reseed Earth after WWIII
Lex Talonis
1 / 5 (3) Feb 02, 2015
What will we look at when the moon is mined and brought back to earth?

The moon? No tides, no solar eclipses, everything on earth will die.
Losik
Feb 02, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (7) Feb 02, 2015
Does anyone know what the moon actually does for the earth? If anything is done to change the mass of this lunar body through mining or any other man-made source of destruction, the earth will be in peril. It could offset the balance of the lunar tides and cause horrific storm surges and sea rise. It might even throw the earth off of its own axis. If they want to "jack" with a moon, use one of Jupiter's or pummel the planet Mars.
Ahhaahaaa you are an idiot with no math skills. Are you the same guy who wanted to stop the yellowstone super volcano with geothermal plants?

I suggest you go pee in the ocean and see how it affects the tides.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (7) Feb 02, 2015
"Texas-based Shackleton Energy Company (SEC) plans to mine the vast reserves of water ice and convert it into rocket propellant in the form of hydrogen and oxygen,"

The energy required to melt ice and split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel would be ASTRONOMICAL.
I suppose SEC is planning that they will have fusion reactors by this point.
If we have fusion reactors will we still need liquid H / O fuels for rockets?

They really do get some stupid people here don't they?

Hey did you know there are many places on the Internet where scientists explain how they want to do this? But I guess some people just can't resist the urge to try coming up with something clever, and failing badly, and pretending they didnt.
TechnoCreed
2.7 / 5 (6) Feb 02, 2015
Designating Earth's Moon as a United Nations World Heritage Site permanently Protecting it from human cupidity or Military use would be the only sensible thing to do. Else, watch greed turn that jewel into trash. Mining the moon would put so much dust in low moon orbit that within 10 years we would only see a bright featureless smear.
Vietvet
2.7 / 5 (6) Feb 02, 2015
Designating Earth's Moon as a United Nations World Heritage Site permanently Protecting it from human cupidity or Military use would be the only sensible thing to do. Else, watch greed turn that jewel into trash. Mining the moon would put so much dust in low moon orbit that within 10 years we would only see a bright featureless smear.


I share sentiments but when a treaty can't be reached to protect Antarctica the moon doesn't stand a chance for protection.
alfie_null
4.8 / 5 (5) Feb 03, 2015
If anything is done to change the mass of this lunar body . . .

That high school physics class you missed - the one where Kepler's Laws were introduced - might help you resolve your question. What's the Moon's mass? Then, to what degree do you imagine we puny humans, even with a whole lot of machinery, might change that mass?

Here's another question for you to ponder - how much mass is added to the Moon by meteorites? I bet it's more than you thought.
antialias_physorg
3.8 / 5 (4) Feb 03, 2015
SEC plans to extract the water ice by sending humans and robots to mine the lunar poles, and then use some of the converted products to power mining hoppers, lunar rovers and life support for its own activities.

Is it just me or does this seem like 5 steps ahead of where we actually are to anybody else (i.e. pretty unrealistic)?
- Mining requires robots/maintenance-free equipment. Not the flimsies we have sent to the Moon (due to weight considerations)
- Mining with humans requires a permanent outpost of sorts. Something we haven't even attempted as a proptotype. Much less as "workman's quarters" - which is a notch up from experimental lab.

I thought Newt Gingrich's moon base idea was lunacy (pun intended). But this sounds almost in the realm of a scam.
alfie_null
5 / 5 (4) Feb 03, 2015
. . . or, you could just learn about the economics of the mining industry and find out that mining asteroids or the moon for profit (not for space station construction) is absurd nonsense.

I can't claim I know a lot about the mining industry. But it's not clear you do either. I do understand the value of minerals steadily rises. And the cost of technology steadily falls. Operations that were not economic thus become so.

For these investor-driven ventures, why should you care how others choose to spend their money?

Of course it will be fantastically expensive for these first entrepreneurs. Just like the first trans-oceanic communications cable (which failed after just a few days operation). Today, where would the Internet be without all the _thousands_ of cables currently in use, that followed that first one?
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (5) Feb 03, 2015
is it just me
Yah it's you. You fail to appreciate the accelerating scope of technological capabilities. We will very soon be strip mining the ocean floor robotically.

The ISS is a base prototype. The moon is 2 days away.
cshemas29
2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2015
I remember a few years back Helium 3 was supposed to be on the moon. Whatever happened
to that? Thanks for any info.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2015
Potential energy resources in our near inner system space are for practical purposes infinite with the proper equipment. We have in our techno resources the ability to make whatever we need as far as solar voltaic or portable nuclear fission generation. Solar on earth is 'intermittent'....off at nite; but in space can be continuous and even generate from earth light. The 'rocket fuel idea could work inasmuch as the H2O2 generation process can be 'reversible' to get back some energy in downtimes....no matter how much energy needed as the sun is 'free'! You are taking a long time on a 'slow' process (solar collection) to create fuel for a 'fast' process (rockets). Kinda like using low gear driving a truck up a long mountain road. Using the thrusters invented by Roger Shawlor and improved by the Chinese will make shipping the products....He3, rare earths, whatever..... very easy. Guaranteed the Chinese have a classified space 'star trek' space shuttle RIGHT NOW using this.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2015
All you folks that put your trust in the United Nations should read your history books. The UN's first predecessor was the 'League of Nations', and that failed when totalitarian outlaw national actors flouted it openly and discredited it verrrry disgracefully 'in yer face!. Now it is the turn of the United Nations! The 'Law of the Sea' was a United Nations sponsored treaty, signed by countries all over the world to guarantee free passage on our planet's high seas. This treaty is now being trashed and thrown into the dustbin of history by the Red Chinese who are 'in yyer face! grabbing open ocean by claiming the entire South China Sea. They are compounding their international criminality by claiming literally right up to the beaches of other nations in the area, and trying to steal their national territory. In the past this has been the path to great wars. Space will be NO different. Only fools soon conquered will dare to NOT put military hardware and personnel into space now.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2015
All you folks that put your trust in the United Nations should read your history books. The UN's first predecessor was the 'League of Nations', and that failed when totalitarian outlaw national actors flouted it openly and discredited it verrrry disgracefully 'in yer face!. Now it is the turn of the United Nations! The 'Law of the Sea' was a United Nations sponsored treaty, signed by countries all over the world to guarantee free passage on our planet's high seas. This treaty is now being trashed and thrown into the dustbin of history by the Red Chinese who are 'in yyer face! grabbing open ocean by claiming the entire South China Sea. They are compounding their international criminality by claiming literally right up to the beaches of other nations in the area, and trying to steal their national territory. In the past this has been the path to great wars. Space will be NO different. Only fools soon conquered will dare to NOT put military hardware and personnel into space now.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2015
I remember a few years back Helium 3 was supposed to be on the moon. Whatever happened
to that? Thanks for any info.
Try google like everybody else. Hey no problem.
ssbaker305
1 / 5 (3) Feb 05, 2015
Does anyone know what the moon actually does for the earth? If anything is done to change the mass of this lunar body through mining or any other man-made source of destruction, the earth will be in peril. It could offset the balance of the lunar tides and cause horrific storm surges and sea rise. It might even throw the earth off of its own axis. If they want to "jack" with a moon, use one of Jupiter's or pummel the planet Mars.


Good point, and never too early to start thinking about these things, since once mining starts, the $$$ will blind and corrupt people to any restrictions and regulations. A Moon Value Tax (MVT) would be one solution, to compensate for the loss of tidal function and other diminishments from moon-mining. Better watch those orbital dynamics too, as the mass of the Moon lightens it may start moving away faster if the orbital speed remains the same. Perhaps we could tug some asteroids into lunar orbit, or crash them into the Moon for future mining?
captainradon
1 / 5 (1) Feb 07, 2015
"Humankind's diaspora to the stars". Hehehehe. Them's optimistic words, pardner. Until humans develop faster-than-light, inertial cancelling anti-gravity drives, we're not going anywhere near the stars. And if that ever happens, then we won't need the moon.
jwozniak
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2015
Great. Robber barons haven't butchered mountains in Appalachia enough. Now they have to move on to the moon. At least there's no resident population to abuse and exploit...they'll have to import those. We'll have sociopaths like Don Blankenship in space, putting the pursuit of profit above the lives of his workers.

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