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Mining On The Moon - Will Earth's Future Depend on Off-Earth Reserves?

Fables have declared for millennia that the Moon, one of the most influential planets in our solar system, is made of green cheese.

The legend arose from an ancient tale that described how a wolf was convinced by his prey, a wiley fox, that the moon's reflection in a pool was a tasty round cheese. The hapless wolf was persuaded to drink the contents of the pool in an attempt to sink his teeth into the delicious delicacy, whereupon he burst and died, and the clever fox escaped.

Whilst its appearance may be reminiscent of a round of young cheese, the moon is actually made up of a variety of different elements, including gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum, tungsten and helium-3, an impressive collection that signifies a wealth of riches in mining terms.

The economic promise of such plentiful resources has not escaped the more lateral-thinking business minds on our own planet. Entrepreneur, Naveen Jain, 55, is co-founder of Moon Express, a company that intends to launch the first commercial robotic spacecraft to the moon next year.

Jain, who previously founded of Internet companies Infospace and Intelius, is convinced that the Moon's mineral bounty holds the key to address the Earth's future energy issues and its finite supplies of essential but rare minerals such as palladium. The rewards offered by moon-mining could be manifold, as it also holds reserves of a gas that could be used in fusion reactors to provide a safer alternative to nuclear power: helium-3 is a rare gas on Earth but it is plentiful on the moon, and could potentially help to supply energy on Earth for around 10,000 years.

"Once you take a mind-set of scarcity and replace it with a mind-set of abundance, amazing things can happen here on Earth," Jain hypothesised. "The ability to access the resources of the moon can change the equation dramatically."

The immense costs involved in space travel has forced such projects out of the hands of the government and out into the world of big business.

"It's clear that the baton has been passed from the government to the private sector" when it comes to space exploration," Jain said. "Now it's going to take an entrepreneurial spirit to do it at a better cost and to build a business around it.

"Now that we're shifting from U.S. government-sponsored space exploration to privately funded expeditions, it's important to look at how the resources of the moon could benefit everyone," he added.

Jain believes that the possibility of moon-mining is totally feasible, and that recent advances in technology have brought the prospect of off-earth enterprises even closer:

"We went to the moon 50 years ago, yet today we have more computing power with our iPhones than the computers that sent men into space," he said. "That type of exponential technological growth is allowing things to happen that was never possible before."

Though Moon Express is not the only outfit with an interest in plundering extra-planetary reserves - other Silicon Valley enterprises such as Planet Labs and Masten Space Systems also have an interest in off-earth endeavors - the Mountain View, California -based company believes it now has the edge due to the appointment of Andrew Aldrin, son of Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, as its president. There is also stiff global competition, however, as the Chinese government landed a robotic rover on the moon in December.

The rivalry in this field of research has been further fuelled by the element of competition, as companies are all vying to win the $30 million Lunar X Prize, a Google-sponsored contest organized by the X Prize Foundation that will be awarded to the company who manages to achieve the first viable commercial spacecraft on the moon.In order to qualify for the prize, the spacecraft will be required to travel 500meters (546 yards) over the moon's terrain and transmit high-definition images and video back to Earth, before the year 2015.

Jain is confident of his team's success in the mission.

"Once we can accomplish that, then the second or third mission can involve bringing things back from the moon," he said.

Off-earth mining is not a new concept; in fact an Australian forum held in February of this year was solely dedicated to discussing the possibility of harvesting the mineral riches available on other planets. The forum, hosted by the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales, explored the possibility of extracting additional supplies of those minerals already present in large quantities on earth, and also the potential to mine and utilise "rare-earth" minerals such as Yttrium, Lanthanum, and Samarium. These valuable minerals are used in a variety of technologies , from missiles to wind turbines; there are very limited supplies on Earth but they are all abundantly available on the moon.

It seems fantastic to think that the Moon may soon be regarded as a distant continent belonging to our Earth, with regular shuttles services bringing its bounty back home. In the now famous words of one of the first space explorers, Neil Armstrong, this step forward could certainly mean "one giant leap for Mankind", one which could provide a lifeline in the form of energy resources that could support the human race for many years to come.

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