Moon ‘gold rush’ as US and China race to mine rare materials from space rock
On December 14, 1972, NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan stepped into Apollo 17’s lunar module, Challenger, and lifted off from the surface of the Moon. Since then, no one has returned.
But new findings have sparked a literal "gold rush" with China, the US, Canada, and South Korea all vying to carve out a stake on the satellite’s desolate surface.
A wealth of gold and platinum is thought to be buried just below the lunar surface, as well as exotic rare earth metals that will power the next generation of electronics.
There’s also a significant amount of non-radioactive helium-3, that could, one day, power nuclear fusion reactors.
But ironically, the substance that’s exciting the next wave of lunar explorers is something that’s commonplace on Earth – water.
As well as being a vital ingredient for future Moon colonists' cuppas, it can also be processed into rocket fuel – making the Moon an ideal staging post for missions to Mars and beyond.
NASA estimates put the quantity of ice hidden in the depths of the Moon’s darkest craters at anywhere between 600 million and one billion metric tons.
As well as the Japanese, Canadian and South Korean missions, there are planned launches of probes by Mexico, Australia, and the UAE expected in the coming few years.
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India's Vikram lander, intended to detect hidden ice deposits at the Moon’s south pole, crashed into the lunar surface a little harder than planned, postponing Indian dreams of taking part in the outer space gold rush.
But of course, the biggest Moon mission on the calendar is NASA’s Artemis program. Incorporating a permanent space station orbiting the moon as well as a long-term human research and mining base on the Moon itself, with the first crewed mission set to take off in August 2023.
The permanent base, according to NASA’s current ambitious timeline, is set to open for business some five years later.
But that’s not the only strand to NASA’s moon research.
The US space agency has announced that it’s willing to pay private companies to go to the Moon and bring back dust and rocks from its surface.
NASA says it will buy the blocks of Moon dust at a rate of $25,000 (just under £18,000) for 500 grams.
The agency's administrator Jim Bridenstine says the samples will form part of a research program to help astronauts "live off the land" on future missions.
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"We do believe we can extract and utilise the resources of the moon, just as we can extract and utilise tuna from the ocean," Bridenstine said.
NASA has already established partnerships with companies including Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Blue Origin, the space launch company set up by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, and others including Astrobotic, Sierra Nevada Corp, and Lockheed Martin.
The attraction of a deal with NASA isn’t just a lucrative cash contract – it’s the opportunity to extract minerals from the Moon.
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Casey Dreier, the chief advocate and senior space policy adviser at the Planetary Society, wrote on Twitter that there real importance of Nasa’s announcement is "not so much the financial incentive (which is tiny) but in establishing the legal precedent that private companies can collect and sell celestial materials [with the explicit blessing of NASA and the US government]".
So many interests competing to extract riches from the Moon could potentially lead to conflict, which is why NASA proposed the Artemis Accords – an International treaty setting rules for future Moon colonists signed by Australia, Canada, England, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, and the United Emirates.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration failed to get two important signatories.
Elya Taichman, a former legislative director for New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, says Trump "exacerbated a national security threat and risked the economic opportunity it hoped to secure in outer space by failing to engage Russia or China as potential partners".
The Moon gold rush, like races for mineral wealth throughout history, could quite easily end in conflict.
US policy expert Anne-Marie Slaughter warns: "Without an international framework that includes all major spacefaring countries, the moon could become the next Wild West."
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