Several days ago Reuters reported that the US was preparing to negotiate a new treaty governing the moon allegedly called the Artemis Accords. Now this treaty would allow for the mining of the moon…along with the claiming of ‘safe zones’ on the moon by countries…totally different from claiming territory BTW. Lets check out more about what moon mining might look like.
The Fun Part
Tranquility Crater, Luna
May 9 , 2043
Jim, did you see the sign as we came in here?
Which one? The one about how this is the safest mining company in history?
Yea that’s the one. Seems a tad exaggerated. After all we are on the moon. There isn’t even air out there. How can we be so safe?
Well Evan, for starters we don’t need any canaries in this mine. No poison gas that will mysteriously start killing us, or be ready to explode.
Other than the O2 on our backs….
Ehhh…it isn’t pure oxygen…and if your oxygen tank explodes you probably deserved it. Those things are built tough. But seriously. We don’t have to worry about the black lung, our arms being sheared off, some warlord stealing our diamonds, or our mine collapsing.
Ok all that is true. But it just seems weird to be calling this place a safe place. Isn’t space supposed to be the final frontier and all? I just don’t think anywhere without the ability to breathe can be called safe.
Fair enough Evan, but that would make the ocean, lakes, and flying high in the atmosphere ‘not safe’. You are technically right. But when we go and live somewhere that ‘isn’t safe’ we tend to get a little paranoid about over-engineering safety. That’s why I feel a hell of a lot better in this mine than I did working that convenience store growing up…I got robbed there twice! How safe is that?
The Real Deal
Moon miners…long way off? It is probably closer than you think. But the first step in understanding moon mining is getting to understand the boring legal shtuff around why we haven’t done it already, what we would be mining for, and what it would be used for.
So first the legal mumbo jumbo.
The point of the Artemis Accords are to allow for ‘safe zones’ around lunar settlements while also reaffirming that ‘countries’ can’t claim any land in space. But since private property is one of the key engines of economic growth – the US wants to ensure companies get to keep what they find/make/mine.
Makes sense – there wouldn’t really be much incentive for people here on Earth to, oh I don’t know do jack shit, if they knew someone could just come steal it from them at any time. Things are still going to be weird though because we have come to think of space as this ‘other’ place where there isn’t money, property or war.
Legal and political stuff aside – what even is moon mining? And why would we want to mine the moon – other than as a prank to see if people on Earth can see what we drew in the dirt.
In-situ resource utilization
In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) is the technical term for identifying, extracting and processing material from astronomical objects that replace materials that would otherwise be brought from Earth. These materials would then be used as oxygen for breathing, electricity, construction materials and even rocket fuel…you know…useful stuff…
There have been discussions of eventually mining and shipping back to Earth the helium-3 locked in the lunar regolith. Helium-3 (a non-radioactive isotope of helium) could be used as fuel for fusion reactors to produce vast amounts of energy at very low environmental cost – although fusion as a power source has not yet been demonstrated, and the volume of extractable helium-3 is unknown. Nonetheless, even as the true costs and benefits of lunar ISRU remain to be seen, there is little reason to think that the considerable current interest in mining the Moon won’t continue.
Lunar Gold Rush?
It’s worth noting that the moon may not be a particularly suitable destination for mining other valuable metals such as gold, platinum or rare earth elements. This is because of the process of differentiation, in which relatively heavy materials sink and lighter materials rise when a planetary body is partially or almost fully molten.
This is basically what goes on if you shake a test tube filled with sand and water. At first, everything is mixed together, but then the sand eventually separates from the liquid and sinks to the bottom of the tube. And just as for Earth, most of the moon’s inventory of heavy and valuable metals are likely deep in the mantle or even the core, where they’re essentially impossible to access.
Everything I just said…but in pictograph form…you know…for the people who like pictures
A couple key takeaways from this graphic
- There are 3 steps to moon mining. Get there, …. , profit
- It will take a long time to mine the whole moon
- I said the moon isn’t a good place to mine Rare Earth Metals…but the graphic said it is…who are you going to believe…some dude who made a pretty graphic or…ok don’t answer that. Yes there probably is REM on the moon, however they are probably REALLY deep in there. So you could get to them if you get desperate enough.
- American flags on the moon are really really big
Ok, so you made it this far…somehow got through the words and the pictures. So at this point I am supposed to give you some call to action…like to check out other posts. Maybe ones about space elevators, or about living on the moon, but usually people aren’t that into being told what to do. So check out my other posts if you want. And if not – subscribe…wherever that button is…to get notified whenever I feel like writing more about space. Right now I’m thinking about writing on: nuclear powered rockets, moon houses made of urine, and how can you style your hair in space.