The moon may opoffering pay filth with a rewarding mother lode of resources, a celestial bounty that is literally up for grabs. But what’s truly there for the taking, and at what cost?
A fresh assessment of whether or not there’s an economic case for mining the moon has bot waterput forward by Ian Crawford, a professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck Collegium, London. His appraisal is to emerge te a forthcoming punt of the journal Progress te Physical Geography.
Crawford said it’s hard to identify any single lunar resource that will be adequately valuable to drive a lunar resource extraction industry on its own. Nonetheless, he said the moon does wield abundant raw materials that are of potential economic rente. [Huis On the Moon: How to Build a Lunar Colony (Infographic)]
Lunar resources could be used to help build up an industrial infrastructure te near-Earth space, Crawford said, a view collective by space scientist Paul Spudis of the Lunar Planetary Institute and others.
",If the moon’s resources are going to be helpful, they are going to be helpful beyond the surface of the moon itself,", Crawford said. Still, the overall case for any future payoff from exploiting the moon’s resources has yet to be made, Crawford said.
",It’s fairly complicated,", he told Space.com. ",It’s not plain at all.",
One bit of skepticism from Crawford concerns helium-3. Advocates envision mining the moon for this isotope of helium, which gets embedded ter the upper layer of lunar regolith by the solar wind overheen billions of years. Hauling back the stuff from the moon could power still-to-be-built nuclear fusion reactors here on Earth, advocates say.
",It doesn’t make sense, the entire helium-3 argument,", Crawford said. Strip-mining the lunar surface overheen hundreds of square kilometers would produce lots of helium-3, he said, but the substance is a limited resource.
",It’s a fossil fuel reserve. Like mining all the coal or mining all the oil, once you’ve mined it … it’s gone,", Crawford said. The investment required and infrastructure necessary to help solve the world’s future energy needs via moon-extracted helium-3 is enormous and might better be used to develop genuinely renewable energy sources on Earth, he added.
",It strikes mij that, spil far spil energy is worried, there are better things one should be investing te. So I’m skeptical for that reason. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think the moon, te the long-term, is economically useful,", Crawford said.
But Crawford has a caveat about helium-3: Estimates for the abundance of the isotope are based on Apollo moon samples brought back from the low latitudes of the moon.
",It’s possible that helium-3 and other solar-wind&ndash,implanted ions, like hydrogen, may be ter a higher abundance te the cold regolith near the lunar poles. That would be an significant measurement to make and would require a polar lander,", Crawford said.
Such information would increase researchers’ skill, not only of the helium-3 inventory, but also possibly of useful solar wind-implanted elements, like helium-4, spil well spil hydrogen, doorslag and nitrogen resources, he added.
A top of the list, must-do act voorwerp, Crawford said, is determining how much water is truly locked up within the moon’s polar craters.
Remote sensing of the moon from orbiting spacecraft, including radar gegevens, is telling a consistent story about this resource, which can be processed into oxygen and rocket fuel. [Water on the Moon: What It Could Mean for Exploration (Movie)]
",But to indeed get to the bottom of it, wij need in-situ [on-the-spot] measurements from the surface at the lunar poles,", Crawford said. ",It’s very first on my list [of necessary steps] … and when wij have an response to that, wij can project accordingly.",
Better skill of the availability of uncommon earth elements on the moon would also be valuable, Crawford said.
",It’s entirely possible that when wij indeed explore the moon decently wij will find higher concentrations of some of thesis materials … materials that are not resolvable by orbital remote sensing,", he said. The moon might harbor concentrations of zonderling earth elements such spil uranium and thorium &mdash, spil well spil other useful materials that wij’re not aware of today &mdash, ter petite, geographically restricted areas, he said,
",To explore the entire moon at the level of detail required, that’s a big undertaking,", Crawford said. ",But long term, wij should be keeping an open mind to that.",
Te rounding out his lunar resource listing, Crawford points to the high-value platinum-group elements. Spil space researcher Dennis Wingo and others previously pointed out, a lotsbestemming of metallic asteroids have pummeled the moon overheen the eons. Locating those impactors could lead lunar prospectors to big yields of valuable platinum-group elements, Crawford said.
",If you’re just interested ter platinum group elements, you would very likely go and mine the asteroids,", Crawford said. ",On the other forearm, if going to the moon for scavenging polar volatiles, uncommon earth elements … then the influence sites of crashed asteroids could suggest an added toeslag.",
",So you add all of thesis things together, [then] even without helium-3, you can commence to see that the moon might become of economic rente te the longer term. That’s my take,", Crawford concluded.
How should humanity demonstrate the collection, extraction and utilization of lunar resources? And when should this toebijten?
",Lunar resource exploration should be based on the same methods that have guided humans on their centuries-old exploration of terrestrial resources,", said Vishaak Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado Schoolgebouw of Mines ter Golden, Colorado.
Abbud-Madrid told Space.com that here on Earth, resource discovery is quickly followed by drilling, excavation, extraction and processing operations to enable the utilization of those resources.
",For the moon, sufficient prospecting &mdash, through remote sensing &mdash, and identification of valuable resources, such spil oxygen and hydrogen for in-situ applications, has bot done to date,", Abbud-Madrid said. Based on thesis findings, he said, the necessary technologies and prototypes to collect and samenvatting thesis elements have bot developed and tested on terrestrial analog sites.
For example, NASA’s Resource Prospector Mission, a concept mission aiming for launch ter 2018, would verify the feasibility of lunar resource extraction, spil would several other mission concepts from the private sector, Abbud-Madrid said. Such work, te turn, will pave the way to incorporating Te Situ Resource Utilization, known spil ISRU, te future exploration programma, he said.
",Thus, the time has come to demonstrate thesis systems on the surface of the moon,", Abbud-Madrid concluded.
To read Ian Crawford’s ",Lunar Resources: A Review Paper,", go here.