European scientists have announced plans to start mining the moon as early as 2025, though what they’ll be extracting is neither gold nor diamonds, but waste-free nuclear energy thought to be worth trillions of dollars.
The goal is to place a lander on the lunar surface to mine and process regolith for useful materials such as water, oxygen, metals and an isotope called helium-3, which may prove useful for fueling future fusion reactors.
Regolith, Universe Today reported, is a dust-like material that covers the lunar surface and is the result of billions of years of meteor and comet impacts. If anyone ever lives on the moon, they could use the regolith to build habitats for a base.
Europe isn’t the only one getting on board of the lunar mining train. Both India and China have floated ideas about extracting Helium-3 from the Earth’s natural satellite.
The mission will be in charge of the European Space Agency in partnership with ArianeGroup, Popular Mechanics reported. It will also count with the participation of Part-Time Scientists, a German group and former Google Lunar XPrize contestant.
Europe isn’t the only one getting on board of the lunar mining train. Both India and China have floated ideas about extracting Helium-3 from the Earth’s natural satellite. Beijing has already landed on the moon twice in the 21st century, with more missions to follow.
There are an estimated one million tonnes of helium-3 in the moon, though only 25 percent of that could be brought to Earth, Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council told Bloomberg last year. Related: Buffett Still Not Sold On Bitcoin
But that’s enough to meet the world’s current energy demands for at least two, and maybe as many as five, centuries, said the expert said, who estimates that helium-3 is worth almost $5 billion a tonne.
No longer science fiction
After being considered mostly a science-fiction tale, governments are now rushing to implement programs and legislations that allow them to join the race for mining in the space.
In 2015, former U.S. President Barack Obama signed a law that grants U.S. citizens rights to own resources mined in space. The ground-breaking rule was touted as a major boost to asteroid mining because it encourages the commercial exploration and utilization of resources from asteroids obtained by U.S. firms.
Geologists believe asteroids are packed with iron ore, nickel and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth, making up a market valued in the trillions of dollars.
Shortly after, Luxembourg launched an official initiative to promote the mining of asteroids for minerals. The tiny European country, which has been studying possible involvement in the sector since 2013, aims to become Europe’s centre for space mining.
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Canada is also eying the moon. Last year, Northern Ontario-based Deltion Innovations partnered with Moon Express, the first American private space exploration firm to have been granted government permission to travel beyond Earth's orbit, on future opportunities in outer space.
Some of the space ventures in the works include plans to mine asteroids, track space debris, build the first human settlement in Mars, and billionaire Elon Musk's own plan for an unmanned mission to the red planet.
Geologists as well as emerging companies, such as US-based Planetary Resources, a firm pioneering the space mining industry, believe asteroids are packed with iron ore, nickel and precious metals at much higher concentrations than those found on Earth, making up a market valued in the trillions of dollars.
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If Helium-3 is claimed to be able to meet the world’s current energy demands for at least two, and maybe as many as five, centuries so will solar power at a fraction of the costs.
It has been calculated that all of the world’s energy needs could be met with solar panels on just 1.2% of the Sahara Desert. There is no greater solar resource on the planet than a broad swath extending from the Sahara Desert of North Africa and into northwestern Saudi Arabia.
If a minute portion of the financial resources and the technological wizardry that would be involved in Helium-extraction from the moon were deployed in tapping the infinite supply of solar power from that stretch of desert, the world will have pollution-free and cheap electricity for ever.
Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
International Oil Economist
Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
Even with reusable first stages of rockets, getting to the Moon, and bringing anything big back, is incredibly expensive. And the most important resource we need, which will soon be in short supply, the hydrocarbons oil and gas, doesn't exist out there, except on Titan.
The asteroid belt is beyond Mars. It takes about 3 years just to get anything that far from Earth. Getting any kind of machinery able to do anything significant on an asteroid would take scores of giant rockets, far larger than anything now planned, or even imagined. Think how many hundreds of billions of dollars that would cost. Mining on this planet will always be much cheaper. Even if metals could be mined out there, you would still need to get them down to the surface of the Earth without making a large crater and enormous explosion.
Some scientists might permanently do research on the Moon. A few people might land on Mars, and explore it for a couple of years. But that will be about it for human exploration of outer space. The vacuum of space is far too dangerous for people to do much in it. That vacuum makes doing anything off the Earth way too expensive to do much off the Earth, other than scientific research. A solar storm would kill anyone in space without shielding. Three Apollo astronauts came within a week of not making it back from the Moon, after a coronal mass ejection hit the Moon. Had they been outside the Earth's protective atmosphere and magnetic field when the CME from the Sun arrived, they would have been killed by the radiation.
Only the development of some heretofore unimagined new source of energy would allow mining of anything off the Earth. Then again, if we had such a source of energy, we could melt down rocks for the minerals we need, or boil off seawater for the trillions of tons of metals & minerals dissolved in the oceans. With a lot of nearly free energy, we could make elements.
We had better hurry up, because soon after the total oil production begins to fall, we will be in big trouble. That will happen during the life of people alive today. Without advances in horizontal drilling and fracking, we might be in trouble already.