In December 1972, NASA Geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and his colleague, Commander Gene Cernan, spent three Earth days conducting experiments on the Moon, gathering up lunar rocks to take back home for analysis and, most likely, pinching themselves.
That mission, almost exactly 50 years ago, was the last time any person set foot on the lunar surface, the final triumph of NASA’s pivotal Apollo program. Of the 12 men to have ever walked on the Moon, Schmitt was the only one who began his career as a trained scientist, rather than a test pilot.
By some accounts, Schmitt was the photographer behind the famous first full picture of Earth from space, ‘the blue marble’, an image that captured a vision of a small, fragile and precious planet for the masses.
But Schmitt brought more home with him than a sense of renewed perspective. His three days on the Moon and his PhD in geology, coalesced into a new mission: to encourage mining the isotope Helium-3 (3He) from Moon rock, to harness a new form of renewable energy.
Mining on the Moon looks set to be a practical reality within the next 10 years thanks to Space 2.0, which reached a major milestone just a few weeks ago when NASA’s unmanned Orion capsule flew the furthest any crew-capable spacecraft has ever been from Earth.
In a few short decades humanity will have unparalleled access to space resources – the question is, what will we do with them?
Return to the Moon
In 2006 Schmitt penned a volume called Return to the Moon. In it, he made the legal and scientific case for returning to the Moon to mine 3He.
He claimed that because fossil fuels were in limited supply and precipitating dangerous global warming, power should be generated cleanly through an as yet undemonstrated nuclear fusion reaction between the isotopes deuterium and helium-3.
Because 3He is incredibly scarce on Earth, he looked to the Moon as the ideal source.
The Moon has comparatively higher concentrations of 3He because, in the absence of a protective atmospheric coating, it has been scoured by isotope-laden solar winds over its more than four billion years of existence.
Nuclear fusion of 3He and deuterium has been posited for decades as a possible source of energy, because the reaction could, in theory, produce vast amounts of energy without making surrounding materials radioactive. By some estimates, just 40 metric tonnes could power the US for an entire year – if the fusion process could be perfected.
Thus far, the high heats required for the reaction and the risk of dangerous chain reactions have been prohibitive to the realisation of this idealised wunderfuel. And the amounts it is found in on the lunar surface are still tiny in real terms.
“Helium is one of the interesting ones,” says Swinburne University astro-metallurgist Matthew Shaw.
“There’s lots of what we call trace elements on the Moon, and Helium-3 is one of them.
“It’s there in parts per billion, though, so it’s absolutely teeny amounts, so the ability to actually extract that would be quite a technical challenge.”
As an astro-metallurgy PhD candidate, Shaw is pioneering the nascent field of the scientific study and extraction of metals and minerals from space rock, and he says that while 3He may be more of a scientific pipe-dream, there’s plenty of other materials on the Moon to go around, including things like silicon, aluminium, iron, manganese, and titanium.
“We have all these types of major oxide elements that are very similar to what we find on Earth,” says Shaw.
All of these metals and minerals have uses on earth that could be mirrored in space, to help build the infrastructure needed to sustain a functioning Moon base and, ultimately, furnish a mission to Mars.
Many of these oxides are found abundantly in the lunar maria – the large, dark basaltic plains, gouged out by volcanic activity billions of years ago, that make up the eyes and gaping mouth of the Moon. The oxides can be separated into constituent parts, offering up a second critical resource in the form of oxygen.
“Previous Apollo missions have revealed it’s something like 50% silicon dioxide and then a whole bunch of other trace elements in there,” says Dr Jonathon Ralston, senior principal research scientist in CSIRO’s Mining Research Team. “So that’s got people interested, because if it’s 50% oxygen by mass, that means the whole surface is a plentiful supply of oxygen.”
But Ralston, whose work at CSIRO focuses on sensing, automation and robotic systems in mining – all of which will be needed for any possible Moon mission – points out the technology required to split these oxides into their constituent components in situ is still in its infancy here on Earth.
In 2011, NASA further reported scientists had discovered titanium ore, 10 times richer than the ore found on Earth, on the surface of the Moon. When mixed with aluminium or iron, titanium ore makes an alloy that is lightweight, strong, corrosion-resistant and temperature resistant. That could make it an ideal candidate for building structures on the Moon, which will have to contend with massive shifts in temperature, intense solar winds and the corrosive effects of tiny, sharp particles of Moon-dust.
The lunar surface is also known to contain the so-called rare-earth metals that are critical for the green energy revolution, and which can be found in engines, batteries, electronic devices, radar systems and more.
Then, there’s the dark side of the Moon. Scientists are fairly convinced that those permanently shadowed regions (PSR) play host to water ice.
But whether water ice is present in abundance in the PSR is another question: “We haven’t confirmed that yet, so we’re not entirely sure,” says Shaw.
“Again, it’s got folks very excited,” says Ralston, not just because liquid water would be necessary for any manned mission to the Moon or Mars, but because, in theory, that H2O could be split to produce hydrogen fuel, and power the rockets of the future.
Scientists know all these resources are there because they’ve analysed the nearly 400 kilograms of lunar regolith brought back by the Apollo missions. They’ve also peered at the Moon’s surface from lunar orbit, hunting for unique signals in different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.
But why travel all that way for resources?
NASA sees the Moon as humanity’s ‘gateway to the solar system’, and plans to build a habitable Moon base there for continued exploration of both the Moon itself and other planets in our neighbourhood.
Other major space agencies around the world are planning the same. But to build a self-sustaining habitat on the Moon, you need resources.
“It’s very expensive to take materials to the Moon,” says Ralston. “The SLS, for example, just the rocket cost US$24 billion, the launch cost US$2 billion. At current rates, to get one kilogram of material to the Moon costs about $1.5 million.”
Mining those resources in situ, on the other hand, would be far less expensive.
The goal of Moon mining, according to Ralston, would be to create a self-sustaining, closed-loop habitat on the Moon – an effort which will require not just using the resources available in the local area, but also figuring out what to do with waste products.
Such is the fervour for space-mining that governments and private companies are already vying for access.
In 2020, then-US President Donald Trump signed an executive order stating that any American citizen or company can extract and use resources in space. That order is not limited to the Moon – asteroids, in particular, are seen as a possible future source of materials.
That move was legal because, under the UN’s 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) – which remains the overarching legal framework for space activity – each signatory government can determine what rights its own citizens have in space. The treaty does, on the other hand, explicitly prohibit the appropriation of any region of space, because it treats outer space as a global commons.
Kim Ellis-Hayes is an international space lawyer and a commercial astronaut-in-training. She explains the difference, in legal terms, between ‘use’ and ‘appropriation’.
“On Earth, with real estate, when you buy a property what you’re actually buying is a bundle of rights,” she says. “One of those rights is that you can exclude others from that property. In space, property doesn’t exist in that way, because non-appropriation means that no nation can sell a piece of property to its citizens.”
But Ellis-Hayes points out that there’s a degree of murkiness to the non-appropriation clause, because extracting resources by definition excludes others from accessing those same resources.
The OST isn’t the only piece of space legislation out there. There’s the 1979 Moon treaty, which bars the use of Moon material for non-scientific purposes and promotes peaceful activity, as well as NASA’s Artemis Accords, which hope “to establish a common suite of principles to govern the civil exploration and use of outer space”.
But not all countries are willing to sign these treaties. Neither the US, Russia or China signed the Moon Treaty, and Russia and China have both refused to sign the Artemis Accords at a time of tense international relations.
That’s important, because the US isn’t the only major economy vying for access. In 2020, China’s National Space Administration found a new phosphate mineral on the Moon, which it named Changesite-(Y). It contains Helium-3.
The agency was so excited about the find that it quickly announced three newly planned orbital trips.
And Russia and China are together planning a joint Moon mission that would involve both an orbiter and a Moon-base, similar to NASA’s, from which the countries hope to explore the solar system. The ramping up of plans to commercialise the Moon have stoked fears international disputes between major global economies could be mirrored in space, with potentially disastrous consequences.
Private companies are also pouring resources into future Moon missions. In 2016, for example, US-based Moon Express, head-quartered at Cape Canaveral in Florida, became the first private company to receive a license from the US Federal Aviation Administration to land on the Moon. Meanwhile NASA has already awarded contracts to four companies to extract lunar resources and transfer them to the agency’s ownership, part of the ongoing dissolution of boundaries between science and commerce in space.
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Before thinking whether we could, we should think about if we should
If you’re left feeling a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park right now, you wouldn’t be alone.
The rapidity with which missions to the Moon and beyond are being planned would make anyone’s head spin. Within the next decade, most likely, all these expeditions will become possible – but what harm might all that activity cause to our celestial neighbour?
Even if the Moon’s mass won’t be affected, many critics of the various planned Moon missions worry that, true to form, once capitalism gets its hands on our satellite, it’ll damage it beyond repair.
Ralston isn’t convinced.
“I’ve been in this game for 25 years, and the level of interest to make sure things are thought through, that they are sustainable, is higher than it’s ever been,” he says.
Ralston points out that mining the lunar regolith would most likely involve scraping a thin layer of the surface rock and dust away, rather than gouging massive scars into its surface as we do here on Earth.
“Certainly, for the near term, the scale of mining is going to be more about science exploration rather than mass digging football fields on the Moon,” he says.
“But it’s worth thinking about right now, because if the technology goes to plan there will be an element of scaling up. And so we’re very interested in having a responsible innovation approach to what that might mean.”
Ellis-Hayes says there is a risk that Moon mining could get out of control if not governed by tight laws.
“This generation of people conducting these activities should really be more concerned about what the legacy is that we’re going to leave for future generations,” she says.
“How do we make sure that future generations can actually have access to these resources in space, whether it be orbital slots, resources on the Moon or Mars, or anything else that’s out there?
“Because, of course, we have all this debris in orbit, and it’s looking so messy that future generations are going to have to clean that up if it continues the way it is now.
“We talk about different nations having access to space, and it’s important we make sure that nations who don’t have as much economic prosperity as others also have access to space, but what about the next generation of people who come through?”
There’s another question pulsing uncomfortably beneath all this momentum, though: do we have any right to what’s on the Moon?
If you ask Dr Michelle Maloney, co-founder and convenor of the Earth Laws Alliance, the answer is a hard no. She is one of the co-authors of the Declaration of the Rights of the Moon, a draft legal treatise that asserts the Moon’s rights as an autonomous natural system.
“The Moon is something that connects us all to deep time: every living organism on planet Earth has seen that Moon,” she says.
“My deep ancestors saw the Moon. In its simplest form it is utter beauty. Plus, it does stuff for planet Earth that we are wrecked without.
“I just don’t think we have a right. The Moon is an entity to itself, we don’t own it.”
Maloney draws an inference between the destructive impacts of white settlement on Australia’s environment and the possibility of future Moon missions.
“Within ten years or even less, in some places, the British colonial folks got to this country, got on their horses, trampled things they didn’t understand, wrecked the soils and the plants and misunderstood Aboriginal people,” she says.
“What makes us think we have a clue about what we’re doing out there?”
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