a

"Long before it's in the papers"
February 02, 2015

RETURN TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE


Mining the Moon becomes a serious prospect, report says

Feb. 2, 2015
Courtesy of the Institute of Physics
and World Science staff

With an es­ti­mat­ed 1.6 bil­lion tons of wa­ter ice at its poles and plen­ty of rare-earth el­e­ments hid­den be­low its sur­face, the Moon is rich ground for min­ing, a new re­port says.

In this mon­th’s is­sue of the mag­a­zine Phys­ics World, sci­ence writ­er Rich­ard Cor­field de­scribes how pri­vate firms and space agen­cies are dream­ing of tap­ping in­to these luc­ra­tive re­sources.

Since NASA dis­banded its manned Apol­lo mis­sions to the Moon over 40 years ago, un­manned space­flight has iden­ti­fied abun­dant wa­ter ice at the Moon’s poles. 

The ar­ti­cle men­tions Texas-based Shack­le­ton En­er­gy Com­pa­ny as one that plans to mine the ice and con­vert it in­to rock­et pro­pel­lant in the form of hy­dro­gen and ox­y­gen, which would then be sold to operat­ors of space­craft in low-Earth or­bit.

The com­pa­ny’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fic­er, Dale Ti­etz, told Cor­field that the plan is to build a “gas sta­t­ion in space” where rock­et pro­pel­lant will be sold for a good deal cheaper than the cost of send­ing fu­el from Earth. The com­pa­ny plans to ex­tract the ice by send­ing hu­mans and robots, and then to use some of the con­verted prod­ucts to pow­er min­ing hop­pers, lu­nar ro­vers and life sup­port for its own ac­ti­vi­ties.

Moon Ex­press, an­oth­er pri­vately funded com­pa­ny, is al­so in­ter­est­ed in us­ing wa­ter ice as fu­el, the ar­ti­cle says, but in a dif­fer­ent form. It plans to fu­el its opera­t­ions and space­craft us­ing “high-test per­ox­ide” which has a long his­to­ry as a pro­pel­lant.

As for min­ing the rare-earth el­e­ments on the Moon, Chi­na is mak­ing the most no­tice­a­ble head­way, accord­ing to the re­port. Chi­na’s 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, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. “All in­ter­est­ed par­ties agree that the Moon—one step from Earth—is the es­sen­tial first toe­hold for hu­mankind’s di­as­po­ra to the stars,” Cor­field con­cludes.


* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend

Sign up for
e-newsletter

   
 
subscribe
 
cancel

On Home Page         

LATEST

  • N­ew find spot­lights su­per-long-necked di­nos

  • Study: war-for-oil “con­spi­racy theor­ists” are often right

EXCLUSIVES

  • Smart­er mice with a “hum­anized” gene?

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

MORE NEWS

  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

With an estimated 1.6 billion tons of water ice at its poles and plenty of rare-earth elements hidden below its surface, the Moon is rich ground for mining, a new report said. In this month’s issue of the magazine Physics World, science writer Richard Corfield describes how private firms and space agencies are dreaming of tapping into these lucrative resources. Since NASA disbanded its manned Apollo missions to the Moon over 40 years ago, unmanned spaceflight has identified abundant water ice at the Moon’s poles. The article mentions Texas-based Shackleton Energy Company as one that plans to mine the ice and convert it into rocket propellant in the form of hydrogen and oxygen, which would then be sold to space partners in low Earth orbit. The company’s chief executive officer, Dale Tietz, told Corfield that the plan is to build a “gas station in space” where rocket propellant will be sold for a good deal cheaper than the cost of sending fuel from Earth. The company plans to extract the ice by sending humans and robots, and then to 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, the article said, but in a different form. It plans to fuel its operations and spacecraft using “high-test peroxide” which has a long history as a propellant. As for mining the rare-earth elements on the Moon, China is making the most noticeable headway, the report said. China’s 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, according to the report. “All interested parties agree that the Moon—one step from Earth—is the essential first toehold for humankind’s diaspora to the stars,” Corfield concludes.