Moon mining race escalates as NASA, Russia, China and India vie for lunar resources
Almost 65 years after the United States and the USSR grabbed the world’s attention with the commencement of a space race which was ultimately aimed at boosting each nation’s ego in the height of the “Cold War” a new race for space is in full swing.
That space race is deemed to have finished with the US named as the winner when Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.
Now the two combatants, along with a host of other nations, are said to be set to contest another race, this time to be first to mine the moon’s potential riches.
The US space agency NASA has reported it is investigating the potential to mine resources on our nearest neighbour in the next decade, with the goal of excavating soil there by 2032.
Now there are reports that Russia has joined the race, with the launch of a new spacecraft that has the capability to land on the moon.
China and India are amongst those that have also been reported to have plans to explore our natural satellite moon, with even suggestions that a joint Russian-China mining conglomerate could be in play.
What could be worth chasing?
Obviously, any mission to just explore the moon’s surface for minerals would require a budget well into the billions.
How much it would cost to then successfully mine whatever was found and get a commercial return is probably incalculable at the moment.
However, there are those who are confident that there are untold riches on the moon and that it can be done.
The NASA backed research firm Jet Propulsion Laboratory has suggested that the moon holds hundreds of billions of dollars of untapped resource.
Other initial suggestions are that the moon could be home to highly valuable critical minerals and rare earth elements.
It has also been proposed that there are many precious metals on the moon, however, the conjecture is that the most valuable moon resource would be Helium-3 since it is rare on earth, but is very common on our neighbour.
CSIRO predicts moon mining could fund future space exploration
Australia’s national science body, the CSIRO, says mining the moon would most likely be attempted with autonomous robots and that Australia’s vast mining experience could play a role.
In a report named ‘Moon Mining’, the science agency suggested that mined minerals from the moon – and even Mars – could help propel future missions further into space.
The report also identified that the Australian mining industry’s experience in operating in harsh, almost “moon-like” conditions, could see it play a role in future plans for mining our neighbour.
The CSIRO suggested that initial mining attempts would most likely feature un-crewed missions with robotics used to explore and test feasibility due to the harsh conditions.
It also identified the potential for mining trials to be conducted in the remote, harsh conditions of the Pilbara region. These trials could help in the assessment of the requisite tools and equipment ahead of a crewed space mission.
The report said a significant part of the technology used in remote ‘terrestrial’ mining operations in the Pilbara could potentially be applied to space operations.
Any moon mining plan would require the necessary infrastructure to be established, with robots undertaking most of the hard work.
A successful discovery of a large, usable water source would also seem critical for processing and if long-term human participation is ever to occur.
Legal challenges ahead
Lunar mining falls into a grey area of international law, however there are discussions underway to help avoid future conflict.
According to the United Nations 1966 Outer Space Treaty, no nation can claim sovereignty over the moon and that the exploration of space should be carried out for the benefit of all countries.
Article II of the Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from claiming territory in space, including the moon, planets and asteroids.
According to Astronomy.com, the international community is examining several options to develop a framework for space resource management, starting with the moon.
The discussions will need to be accelerated with so many nations now moving rapidly to win the moon gold rush – as NASA has dubbed it.