2024, Focused on the Moon

Date: June 18, 2024.
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The worldwide effort to design a mining operation on the Moon is gaining momentum. Private companies are actively planning for lunar mining, indicating a growing interest in space resource extraction.

Major powers are also eyeing the Moon for its potential resources, leading to discussions about a lunar gold rush. Despite the excitement surrounding moon mining, there are important considerations related to governance in space mining that experts are addressing.

This trend towards space mining reflects a broader shift towards exploring and utilizing resources beyond Earth, with initiatives like mining in space becoming increasingly feasible.

The legal aspects of moon mining are also coming under close scrutiny, with space law experts weighing in on the implications and challenges associated with these endeavors.

The ‘Wall Street Journal’ published Mark Mills’ review of an important new book: “The War Below: Lithium, Copper, and the Global Battle to Power Our Lives” by Ernest Scheyder.

Mills focused his review on the fact that governments “seek an expansion of global mining as part of the transition away from oil and coal”.

The review pointed out that “the governments of Europe and the U.S. implement policies requiring that global mining expand, and soon, by 400% to 7,000%.

Those policies are meant to force a transition away from the oil, natural gas and coal that supply 80% of global energy. But it’s an unavoidable fact that building the favored transition machines—wind turbines, solar panels, electric cars—will require astonishing quantities of minerals to produce the same amount of energy.”

Interest in mining on the Moon

Several of the world’s leading space agencies, and some private companies, have recently shown a keen interest in mining on the Moon.

This trend is being driven by rising financial and environmental costs associated with Earth-based mining, and the capacity to extract valuable lunar resources like water, rare metals, and helium-3.

While specific projects may vary, here's a general overview of some initiatives being considered:

NASA's Artemis Program aims to return humans to the Moon, with the goal of establishing a sustainable presence there by the 2020s. While not explicitly focused solely on mining, NASA intends to utilize lunar resources to support long-term human habitation. NASA has expressed interest in mining water ice at the lunar poles, which could be used for drinking water, breathable oxygen, and as a source of hydrogen for rocket fuel.

European Space Agency (ESA) has also shown interest in lunar mining as part of its broader lunar exploration plans. One of the main focuses is on prospecting for water ice, which could support future human missions and possibly be converted into rocket fuel.

The ESA's Moon Village concept envisions a collaborative effort involving various countries and organizations, which could include mining activities.

China National Space Administration (CNSA) has been actively pursuing lunar exploration through its Chang'e program. While mining hasn't been a primary focus thus far, China has expressed interest in utilizing lunar resources for future missions.

CNSA's missions have included prospecting for lunar resources and understanding the composition of the lunar surface, which could lay the groundwork for future mining endeavors.

Commercial initiatives are getting financed and building momentum. Several private companies, such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Moon Express, have expressed interest in mining the Moon for various resources. These companies see potential business opportunities in extracting resources like water, which could be used for space habitats or fuel production. Some companies are also interested in rare metals and helium-3, which could be used in advanced technologies like fusion reactors.

International collaborations and partnerships are emerging in the field of lunar exploration and mining. For example, the Artemis Accords, initiated by NASA, aim to establish principles for cooperation among nations in lunar exploration, including resource utilization. These agreements could pave the way for multinational efforts in lunar mining.

Exploiting the resources of the Moon

While specific moon-based mining projects may differ in their objectives and approaches, there is certainly a common factor at work here: a growing interest in developing projects on the part of both government agencies and private entities.

As the exorbitant costs for launching rockets have been tamed, exploring and potentially exploiting the resources of the Moon is no longer considered to be far-fetched. To date, however, no large-scale lunar mining operations have been fully initiated; much of the current focus remains on prospecting and feasibility studies.

Establishing a mining operation on the Moon will be challenging due to various factors: technology development, infrastructure requirements, and the specific objectives of the mission. Several cost components must be considered:

Launch Costs: Launching payloads to the Moon involves significant expenses. The cost per kilogram to send material to the Moon can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the launch vehicle and mission requirements. This cost includes the development and operation of rockets, as well as associated infrastructure and launch services.

Technology Development: Developing the necessary technology for lunar mining, including robotic systems, drilling equipment, resource extraction methods, and processing facilities, requires substantial investment. Research and development costs for new technologies tailored to the lunar environment can be significant.

Mission Design and Operations: Planning and executing a lunar mining mission involve expenses related to mission design, spacecraft development, mission operations, and communication infrastructure. These costs include mission planning, spacecraft manufacturing, testing, and ongoing mission operations.

Infrastructure: Establishing infrastructure on the Moon, such as habitats, power systems, communication networks, and transportation capabilities, adds to the overall cost of a mining operation. Building and maintaining infrastructure to support mining activities and human presence on the lunar surface require significant investment.

Resource Assessment: Conducting resource assessments and prospecting missions to identify and characterize lunar resources adds to the overall cost. These missions involve the development and operation of instruments and spacecraft for remote sensing, sample collection, and analysis.

Regulatory Compliance: Compliance with international treaties, agreements, and regulations governing space activities will entail additional costs. Companies and organizations involved in lunar mining must adhere to legal and regulatory frameworks established by their respective countries and international bodies.

Risks and Contingencies: Factoring in risks and uncertainties associated with lunar mining operations is essential. Contingency planning and risk mitigation strategies add to overall mission costs.

Benefits and risks

It's challenging to provide a specific estimate for the total cost of establishing a lunar mining operation due to the varying nature of missions, technological advancements, and market conditions.

However, some estimates suggest that initial lunar mining missions could cost billions of dollars, with costs decreasing as technology matures and infrastructure becomes more established.

Additionally, the involvement of private companies and international collaborations will influence cost dynamics and funding sources for any one of the possible lunar mining ventures.

There are numerous potential benefits and risks associated with mining on the Moon. Three key benefits are worth noting here:

Space Resource Utilization: Moon mining offers the potential to extract valuable resources like water, helium-3, and rare earth elements, which could support future space missions and settlements.

Economic Opportunities: There is a race between private and public sectors to mine the Moon, indicating the economic benefits that could arise from space resource extraction.

Technological Advancements: Mining on the Moon could drive technological innovation in areas like robotics, resource extraction, and space infrastructure development.

At the same time, three big risks lurk in the near-distance:

Business Relationships: Moon mining poses risks in terms of business relationships, as various entities compete for access to lunar resources, potentially leading to conflicts or disputes.

Human Safety: The safety of personnel involved in moon mining operations is a critical concern due to the harsh lunar environment and the challenges of operating in space.

Legal and Governance Challenges: There are legal complexities surrounding moon mining, including issues related to property rights, environmental impact, and international cooperation that need to be addressed.

The surge in interest in Moon mining is becoming a key dimension of the growing worldwide focus on commercial space exploration and resource utilization.

Source TA, Photo: Shutterstock