From the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of the Gold Prospectors Magazine
By Anna B. Wroblewska
In 2016, Moon Express became the first private company to get permission to travel beyond Earth’s orbit. In announcing the news, co-founder and CEO Bob Richards said, “We are now free to set sail as explorers to Earth’s eighth continent, the moon, seeking new knowledge and resources to expand Earth’s economic sphere for the benefit of all humanity.”
The company was founded in 2010 to win the Google Lunar X Prize, which is offering $20 million to the first private company to land on the moon, traverse the surface for 500 meters, and broadcast at least two “mooncasts” to Earth, among other requirements. Moon Express has already won $1,250,000 in prize money for reaching interim milestones and is the furthest along in its quest relative to other finalists.
For many, especially those who remember the Apollo missions, outer space represents the pinnacle of human achievement and innovation. But interest in the moon isn’t just about progress. Increasingly, it’s also about the second part of Mr. Richards’ statement: resources.
Water: “The gold or oil of space”
In a press release, Moon Express’ chairman, co-founder Naveen Jain, said, “In the immediate future, we envision bringing precious resources, metals, and Moon rocks back to Earth. In 15 years, the Moon will be an important part of Earth’s economy, and potentially our second home. Imagine that.”
Indeed, unlike the “dry hunk of rock” theory many of us grew up with, recent missions have determined that the moon is rich in a number of resources.
Chief among them: water. In a conversation with Gold Prospectors Magazine, Angel Abbud-Madrid, who is a Research Associate Professor and the Director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, said, “Right now, water is the gold or the oil of space.”
A 2009 NASA mission found a surprising amount of water ice near the moon’s South Pole. If it can be extracted, water ice can provide drinking water and, after breaking it down, hydrogen and oxygen, which are the most basic and energetic rocket propellant.
The science writer Richard Corfield put it this way: “It is this [discovery], more than anything else, that has kindled interest in mining the moon. For where there is ice, there is fuel.”
The game changer – and other resources
NASA’s discovery of water ice on the moon was a “game changer” for lunar mining, according to the bank Goldman Sachs.
What can be mined? Studies have discovered various concentrations of iron, titanium, aluminum, silicon, and rare earth minerals. Some of these materials have accumulated over its 4.5 billion year history thanks to regular bombardment by comets and asteroids.
The same mission that discovered water ice also found surprisingly high levels of gold. Samples brought back from the Apollo missions exhibited very low concentrations on the lunar soil, but there seems to be more gold located in the moon’s permanently shadowed craters, areas that never get sunlight. The suspected reason is that lunar dust (the moon’s soil is made up of fine, highly abrasive dust-like particles) becomes electrostatically charged during daylight and shifts across the surface. When it lands in places without sun, the process halts.
Professor Abbud-Madrid told us, “That’s the hypothesis: it has not been proven yet. But we may have the next gold rush in these permanently shadowed craters on the moon – and the gold may even be on the surface.”
Prospecting the moon
But knowing what’s there and making use of it are, of course, two different things. Attempting to extract resources on the moon would require the same starting point as an earth-bound mining endeavor: prospecting.
Researchers need to determine how widespread water ice reserves really are and whether they can be feasibly exploited by astronauts or robotic machines. The same holds for other mineable resources.
NASA’s Resource Prospector Mission, scheduled for the early 2020s, plans to do just that. Touted as “the first mining expedition on another world,” NASA plans to send a rover to search for and attempt an initial extraction of hydrogen, oxygen, and water.
This is a critical starting point, though some argue that determining the true extent of extractable lunar resources may require a longer-term presence on the moon’s surface.
In a published article he shared with us, Ian Crawford, a Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birckbeck College, University of London, wrote that prospecting would require lengthy on-site study of the moon’s geography and magnetic field, both of which could impact the concentration of extractable minerals. Along with other exploratory necessities, Professor Crawford estimates that fully prospecting the moon for commercially-viable mining endeavors is a process which could take decades.
The challenges to life – and engineering
Of course, commercial viability doesn’t just come down to the presence of resources. The moon has an incredibly hostile environment, which offers special challenges for maintaining both machinery and human life.
Low gravity, UV radiation, and the lack of an atmosphere will all need to be addressed, especially when it comes to human miners. Astronauts experience difficulty with everything from hand-eye coordination to spatial orientation as a result of low gravity, along with bone density loss of about 1% per month (compare this to the earthbound elderly, who lose about 1% of bone density per year). Once outside of the Earth’s protective atmosphere, astronauts also encounter 10 times the exposure to UV radiation – and have a higher lifetime cancer risk.
Then there’s moon dust. It’s extremely fine and easily finds its way into machinery, causing extreme wear and, for humans, respiratory problems (the Apollo astronauts experienced both). The presence of mercury in moon dust is also a potential concern. The mission that discovered extensive water ice also found a high concentration of mercury. This volatile metal is extremely dangerous if inhaled, absorbed through the skin, or ingested.
Finally, you have some of the more basic problems of being in space. Professor Abbud-Madrid said, “For terrestrial mining operations we have unlimited power, unlimited labor, and we have gravity.” On the moon, “All of these are in low supply, it’s extremely cold, and you’re in a vacuum.”
Innovating risks away
Altogether, extraction will have to involve tools that can handle the moon’s surface itself and the harsh environment of space more generally. Prototypes for excavators and drills have been adapted from Earthly designs and tested in harsh environments like Hawaii and Antarctica, which can mimic some of the moon’s conditions.
On top of that, the size of equipment used, its power sources, and its means of operation all have to be tailored for the moon’s conditions. Common materials and equipment like grease and hydraulics are “totally out of the question,” said Professor Abbud-Madrid.
Finally, there’s the cost of getting these innovations to the moon’s surface.
Moon Express estimates that it will charge about $30 million for every 10-kilograms (about 22 pounds) of commercial and scientific materials it ships to the moon. That means sending mining machinery becomes a serious issue.
Some have suggested that miners and other moon-dwellers could reduce these costs by utilizing innovations like onsite 3D printing to produce machinery and parts, inflatable habitats to avoid the cost of construction, virtual reality to test engineering ideas, and self-driving robotics to conduct the actual work of mining.
For the average person, this might sound like a lot of scientific fiction, but innovations and investments continue.
Financing the future
So how to pay for the research and development necessary to overcome these challenges? For Moon Express, the answer is moon rocks.
For the average man on the moon, they’re just rocks, but for anyone here on Earth moon rock is among the rarest of rareties. Moon Express has permission from the US Government to sell whatever it brings back, and the company estimates that moon rock will fetch about $50,000 per gram.
In other words, once the company is able to send a rocket to the moon, extract a kilogram of moon rock, and fly back, it could expect to earn about $50 million. That could be enough to start financing future missions and investments, especially when coupled with investor funding and (presumably) the Google X prize.
Of course, this opens up a Pandora’s Box of global legal and ethical issues. The international 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires all extra-planetary resources to be used “for the benefit of all humanity.” On the other hand, the American government has allowed private ownership for all non-living resources brought back to Earth.
In other words, those first few moon rocks could initiate a global discussion on a legal and political level. The right way to establish ownership of extraterrestrial materials, the means of ensuring that other worlds and ours are protected from contamination in extracting those materials, and the issue of how to fairly benefit humanity through the scope of private business are all likely to be raised.
Unless, of course, you didn’t have to bring it back
Entrepreneurs like Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources, a company pursuing asteroid mining, don’t expect these advances to simply benefit life and manufacturing here on Earth.
"Every frontier that we've opened up on planet Earth has either been in the pursuit of resources, or we've been able to stay in that frontier because of the local resources that were available to us," Lewicki told Space.com.
"There's no reason to think that space will be any different."
Indeed, the Center for Space Resources determined that true economic viability doesn’t involve importing lunar or extra-terrestrial materials back to earth. “It does not make sense to bring space resources to Earth at this point,” says Professor Abbud-Madrid, “But it does make sense to use resources in space for space applications. Most companies have realized this “living off-the-land approach” and changed their tune over time.”
In other words, for those looking beyond Earth’s borders for knowledge and resources, mining and extraction on the moon could be the ticket to deeper space exploration and colonization.
The fact that technology development is advancing rapidly and that potential costs are dropping means that the human relationship with our moon – and with outer space in general – could change significantly in the course of our lifetimes. Some even suggest that in the next decade or two we’ll see excavation on the lunar surface, and possibly beyond.
There’s a certain poetic logic to it: we owe both our moon and many of our Earthly mineable resources to impacts by passing asteroids. Perhaps, then, it makes sense that we pursue even more of these resources by finding ways to mine them outside of our planetary borders.
Anna B. Wroblewska is a widely syndicated financial writer who specializes in making complicated financial subjects accessible (and interesting). You can find her online at www.auguryconsulting.com