Mining the Moon: A boondoggle that might do some good

NASA artist rendition of robot-assisted construction of lunar base
Credit: NASA

The next race in space will be a contest to see who can get to the Moon with the right equipment, find the right resources and remove them in a way that allows someone to make enough profit to go back and do the same thing over and over.

China wants to go. India wants to go. NASA has been recruiting companies with viable technology and good long-term prospects as partners for a public-private push back toward the Moon, though it's not clear how high profits would be on NASA's priority list if its current plan to go back to the Moon by 2018 is fulfilled.

Most of the assumptions about what resources there might be on the Moon, how valuable they are and whether we could take advantage of them have been exaggerated, according to one leading researcher. The belief that there might be gold in them thar craters still seems to be stirring at least a hint of the Moon fever that got the public of both countries behind efforts by the U.S. and U.S.S. R. to reach the Moon during the '70s.

The current version of that enthusiasm, however comes from companies like Texas-based Shackleton Energy Company (SEC), which is so eager to build "a gas station in space," that it and has been developing plans since 2007for a low-Earth orbit space station that could turn ice from the Moon into hydrogen and oxygen to fuel fleets of spacecraft in orbit, with a launch date in 2015. It tried to gather $1.2 million to help pay for the effort by launching a crowdfunding project at RocketHub in 2012, but only got pledges for a little more than $5,500.

It has lobbied NASA to be part of the corporate partner program that is part of the U.S. return to the Moon and relentlessly promoted the commercial potential of lunar raw materials to support businesses that support a growing space-based economy – most recently following publication of a research paper analyzing the commercial potential of lunar raw materials whose conclusion was that funding the growth of space travel would be about the best we can expect from commercial exploitation of the queen of the night.

Terrestrial astrophysicists – aided by exploratory flights past the Moon by countries including India and China – which put its own Jade Rabbit lander on the lunar surface in December, 2013 – have determined there is plenty of water ice at the North and South poles of the Moon, according to the journal Physics World and NASA's own ongoing research into the practicality of Moon bases gathered under projects called lunar Flashlight and the Resource Prospector Mission.

NASA has been planning to mine water on both the Moon and Mars to support eventual bases on both bodies, for efficiency's sake if nothing else.

"If you're going to have humans on the Moon and you need water for drinking, breathing, rocket fuel, anything you want, it's much, much cheaper to live off the land than it is to bring everything with you," according to a Space.com story quoting lunar Flashlight principal investigator Barbara Cohen.

Not everyone is interested in exploration or finding enough water to make fuel for rockets doing delivery or construction jobs around Earth.

China, according to a June, 2014 story in TheDiplomat, is pushing its space program aggressively with the goal of mining helium-3 from the surface to help relieve its own energy problems and possibly build an "empire" built on an energy resource potentially worth trillions.

Helium-3, an isotope of Helium, could be worth as much as $3 billion per ton, according to analysis by a researcher at the University of Tamkan in Taiwan, who suggested helium-3 could be extracted from lunar dust by heating it to 600 degrees Celsius.

"Nuclear fusion reactors using helium-3 could provide a highly efficient form of nuclear power with virtually no waste and negligible radiation," according to the June, 2014 article by Fabrizio Bozzato.

Helium-3 is emitted by the sun in huge quantities, but is rare on Earth, from which it is blocked by a thick atmosphere. There only a few hundred pounds of the stuff on Earth, but there could be as many as 1.1 million metric tons of helium-3 on the surface of the Moon.

China, whose economy and oil imports are growing so quickly as an alternative to coal-fired power that it could be importing three quarters of its oil by 2030, has called the Moon "so rich" in helium-3 that mining it could "solve humanity's energy demand for around 10,000 years at least," according to quotes in August from the chief scientist of the Chinese lunar Exploration Program.

The 10,000-year estimate came from researchers at the Fusion Technology Institute (FTI) at the University of Wisconsin who not only touted it as a potential solution to the energy crisis and criticized NASA's Commercial Development Division for not pursuing a helium-3 power program because it would take too long to achieve.

Enough helium-3 to fill two space shuttles could power the Unites States for a year, according to FTI, though that would be true only if the commercial use of fusion had been perfected. Research into the development of fusion power has been going on since the 1950s; experimental reactors have been operating since the mid-1970s. Researchers predicted throughout the '80s and '90s that only about 10 years to 15 years of additional work would be needed make nuclear fusion power generators practical and efficient.

The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy – the U.K.'s national laboratory for fusion research, which operates the largest magnetic-fusion experimental reactor in the world – currently estimates practical fusion power is 30 years to 40 years away. Current efforts use a mixture of tritium and deuterium as fuel, the drawback of which is that 80 percent of the energy they emit during fusion is emitted as deadly high-energy neutrons.

Even if we knew what to do with the stuff when we got it, a leading expert on the composition of the Moon has voiced serious doubt about how much helium-3 there really is on the Moon and how valuable it might be back on Earth.

"It doesn't make sense, the whole helium-3 argument," according to a Jan. 7 Space.com story quoting Ian Crawford, professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck College, London – one of the most vocal proponents of the value of sending manned missions back to the Moon for the scientific value of the missions and their value in helping advance space-flight.

Getting mining equipment to the Moon, strip-mining helium-3 from it and bringing it back to Earth will be difficult, dangerous, expensive and will provide only a temporary respite because it's a limited resource on the Moon, too.

"It strikes me that, as far as energy is concerned, there are better things one should be investing in. So I'm skeptical for that reason. But that doesn't mean that I don't think the Moon, in the long-term, is economically useful," Crawford told Space.com

There isn't one single element on the Moon that would justify the cost of mining it, Crawford wrote in the lunar-resource-analysis paper that set off the current round of debate and which will be published in an upcoming issue (PDF) of the journal Progress in Physical Geography.

The Moon has an abundant source of energy from sunlight, which is much easier to use than any material that has to be mined, and serves at least as important a purpose as relatively stable ground for bases, living quarters and construction/repair facilities for spacecraft as it would a supplier of exotic materials for future fusion reactors, Crawford wrote.

"It is the fact that the lunar surface has the potential to support a growing scientific and industrial infrastructure, in a way that asteroidal surfaces do not, which is likely to make the Moon the Linchpin of humanity's future utilization of the Solar System, " he concluded.

The first step in exploiting the Moon is actually being able to go there, however, Crawford wrote, praising the 2013 Global Exploration Roadmap that outlined potential human and robotic missions to the Moon, asteroids and Mars.

If nothing else, efforts like that show humans still want to explore the space beyond our own atmosphere, even if the only thing that can get us as far as the Moon, apparently, is the chance of making huge gobs of money by strip-mining and burning it.

Somehow Apollo – a cold-war tool to achieve political dominance and technological superiority painted to look like a mission of scientific exploration – at least sounded noble.

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