Mining the moon

Mining the moon
Artist’s depiction of a moon base with a view of Earth in the distance. Credit: Pavel Chagochkin/

If you were transported to the Moon this very instant, you would surely and rapidly die. That's because there's no atmosphere, the surface temperature varies from a roasting 130 degrees Celsius (266 F) to a bone-chilling minus 170 C (minus 274 F). If the lack of air or horrific heat or cold don't kill you then micrometeorite bombardment or solar radiation will. By all accounts, the Moon is not a hospitable place to be.

Yet if human beings are to explore the Moon and, potentially, live there one day, we'll need to learn how to deal with these challenging environmental conditions. We'll need habitats, air, food and energy, as well as fuel to power rockets back to Earth and possibly other destinations. That means we'll need resources to meet these requirements. We can either bring them with us from Earth – an expensive proposition – or we'll need to take advantage of resources on the Moon itself. And that's where the idea of "in-situ resource utilization," or ISRU, comes in.

Underpinning efforts to use lunar materials is the desire to establish either temporary or even permanent human settlements on the Moon – and there are numerous benefits to doing so. For example, lunar bases or colonies could provide invaluable training and preparation for missions to farther flung destinations, including Mars. Developing and utilizing will likely lead to a vast number of innovative and exotic technologies that could be useful on Earth, as has been the case with the International Space Station.

Mining the moon
A rendering of a possible lunar habitat, featuring elements printed in 3-D with lunar soil. Credit: European Space Agency/Foster + Partners

As a planetary geologist, I'm fascinated by how other worlds came to be, and what lessons we can learn about the formation and evolution of our own planet. And because one day I hope to actually visit the Moon in person, I'm particularly interested in how we can use the resources there to make human exploration of the solar system as economical as possible.

In-situ resource utilization

ISRU sounds like science fiction, and for the moment it largely is. This concept involves identifying, extracting and processing material from the and interior and converting it into something useful: oxygen for breathing, electricity, construction materials and even rocket fuel.

Mining the moon
Artist’s impression of what lunar in-situ resource utilization might look like. Credit: NASA

Many countries have expressed a renewed desire to go back to the Moon. NASA has a multitude of plans to do so, China landed a rover on the lunar farside in January and has an active rover there right now, and numerous other countries have their sights set on lunar missions. The necessity of using materials already present on the Moon becomes more pressing.

Anticipation of lunar living is driving engineering and experimental work to determine how to efficiently use to support human exploration. For example, the European Space Agency is planning to land a spacecraft at the lunar South Pole in 2022 to drill beneath the surface in search of water ice and other chemicals. This craft will feature a research instrument designed to obtain water from the lunar soil or regolith.

There have even been discussions of eventually mining and shipping back to Earth the helium-3 locked in the lunar regolith. Helium-3 (a non-radioactive isotope of helium) could be used as fuel for fusion reactors to produce vast amounts of energy at very low environmental cost – although fusion as a power source has not yet been demonstrated, and the volume of extractable helium-3 is unknown. Nonetheless, even as the true costs and benefits of lunar ISRU remain to be seen, there is little reason to think that the considerable current interest in mining the Moon won't continue.

Mining the moon
Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt standing beside a boulder on the lunar surface. Credit: NASA

It's worth noting that the Moon may not be a particularly suitable destination for mining other valuable metals such as gold, platinum or rare earth elements. This is because of the process of differentiation, in which relatively heavy materials sink and lighter materials rise when a planetary body is partially or almost fully molten.

This is basically what goes on if you shake a test tube filled with sand and water. At first, everything is mixed together, but then the sand eventually separates from the liquid and sinks to the bottom of the tube. And just as for Earth, most of the Moon's inventory of heavy and valuable metals are likely deep in the mantle or even the core, where they're essentially impossible to access. Indeed, it's because minor bodies such as asteroids generally don't undergo differentiation that they're such promising targets for mineral exploration and extraction.

Mining the moon
Artist’s impression of the collision between the proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object. Credit: NASA/JPL-CALTECH/T. Pyle

Lunar formation

Indeed, the Moon holds a special place in planetary science because it is the only other body in the solar system where human beings have set foot. The NASA Apollo program in the 1960s and 70s saw a total of 12 astronauts walk, bounce and rove on the surface. The rock samples they brought back and the experiments they left there have enabled a greater understanding of not only our Moon, but of how planets form in general, than would ever have been possible otherwise.

From those missions, and others over the ensuing decades, scientists have learned a great deal about the Moon. Instead of growing from a cloud of dust and ice as the planets in the solar system did, we've discovered that our nearest neighbor is probably the result of a giant impact between the proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object. That collision ejected a huge volume of debris, some of which later coalesced into the Moon. From analyses of lunar samples, advanced computer modeling and comparisons with other planets in the solar system, we've learned among many other things that colossal impacts could be the rule, not the exception, in the early days of this and other planetary systems.

Carrying out scientific research on the Moon would yield dramatic increases in our understanding of how our natural satellite came to be, and what processes operate on and within the surface to make it look the way it does.

The coming decades hold the promise of a new era of lunar exploration, with humans living there for extended periods of time enabled by the extraction and use of the Moon's natural resources. With steady, determined effort, then, the Moon can become not only a home to future explorers, but the perfect stepping stone from which to take our next giant leap.

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Mar 05, 2019
Okay, ignore the first paragraph. It is rather supercilious but the writer improves as they go along.

I do disagree with their projected colony on Luna. Aside from the many unresolved biological factors.

I opinionate that landing an expedition & then searching for water & resources to exploit?
Is dumbass-backwards.

The surface of the Moon is umpteen millions sq Kms of barren dead rock.
The decision about where to place a colony, is before the descent from Lunar orbit!

Finding water bearing not toxic minerals are maybe a thousand klicks that away?

& the resource you are gullible enough to think will have some ROI market value when you finally deliver it to Earth syrface?
Is located several hundred klicks over hill & dale, some other way?

First send robot prospectors.
Then analyze the verified data to see if there is any possibility of finding or creating a profitable market.

Anyone still eager to get trapped in that g-well?
Defines dumb-ass .

Mar 05, 2019
the moon stuff is just military planning to get money for military contractors by any means necessary, lies and obfuscation included. i'm all for the pillaging of our society by those who pursue pure power, so i favor this project. TO THE MOON!!!

Mar 05, 2019
Looking forward to the Lunar-Gateway Space Station. The colonization of the Moon is not far. I will see it in my lifetime.

Mar 05, 2019
Giant impact theory will always remain theory. It's far from reality. Moon was formed by coalescing just like planets formed. If impact theory is true, it should hold for other planetary moons too. How did they form?

Mar 06, 2019
zeevik, I sort of agree with the generalities of your comment. However, you did leave out a few details, Such as military/NASA contractor conglomerates have a vested interest in continuing to profit from expanding civilian, military, & acronym agencies expansion into space endeavors.

Originally, the Mil-Ind complexity & NASA were dispersed across the as many States as possible,
Just as the ARPENET was dispersed to multiple colleges & universities, To become the backbone of the Internet.

All that effort to prevent a nuclear strike from destroying all America's fighting industries.

In addition to spreading high-tax paying companies & personnel throughout as many Congressional Districts as possible. To be repaid with generous campaign contributions to cooperative politicians.

Plus greatly expanding funding for local schools & academic institutions. For research, you understand?

Now, how do you intend to bell that clowder of fatcats?

Mar 06, 2019
guptm, you make a good point. However, I think there have been, still are, a multitude of various ways to assemble a moon.

& those do not always work. Where are the moons for Venus & Mars?
The itty-bitty rocks temporarily orbiting Mars? Are just waiting their turn to get dragged into Mars surface.

There are so many random factors possible combinations? In my opinion, we will find something unique about every Galaxy, Cluster, Star, System, planet, moon, comet & asteroid.

It is not the similarities we should care about but that the differences that will be fascinating.

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