A fast-tracked plan to mine the moon

By Donna Schmidt

Do a Google search for “Is it possible to mine the moon?” and the responses are as varied as our galaxy. For many within the industry, the idea of lunar mining has long been a sought-after achievement – it has just been a question of when and how.

Score one for the U.S. in this regard, as the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has recently published a solicitation seeking university researchers to explore the use of metal extraction from the surface layer of the moon for material sciences and 3D printing.

“There are certain metals we might be able to extract in different parts of the moon and we might need to start manufacturing with them if we are going to build things on the moon,” NASA Space Technology Research Grants Program Executive Matt Deans told Bloomberg in late February, just before NAM press time.

While at an early stage, Deans added, “the solicitation does spell out we want to construct things eventually.”

The Lunar Surface Technology Research program is part of NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative, which was created to fund early-stage technology that have the potential to later become large production contracts.

Its motivator is the definition of what could be called a new “space race”: China is also working on the same mission, creating an unprecedented urgency to be able to say we were first. The race is both high stakes and high risk, as the lunar surface could help provide energy as well as solutions for water and oxygen needs in addition to metals.

The news comes just weeks after researchers at the University of Utah released a report that lunar mining could well be a solution to climate issues. Ben Bromley, a theoretical astrophysicist at the university, worked with two others to evaluate a number of properties, including coal and sea salt, that could dim the sun by up to 2% if fired into space. 

The group went on to note that the dust found on the moon, although millions of tons would have to be mined, sifted and loaded into a ballistic device, such as an electromagnetic rail gun, and fired into space each year into order to maintain this solar shield.

To put it into a fiscal perspective: launching dust from Earth to what the group called the “Lagrange Point” would be effective but would require much effort and an even greater cost. Using moondust could be a cheaper and more effective way to offer that same shade for the planet.

“It is amazing to contemplate how moon dust – which took over four billion years to generate – might help slow the rise in Earth’s temperature, a problem that took us less than 300 years to produce,” said Scott Kenyon, co-author of the study from the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.

So: the ideas are there, as is the desire to create change. Between these two projects, the global view of mining could broaden and deepen significantly in a very minute amount of time. As the industry knows, though, just because we have the ability to make something happen does not mean the path to bringing it to fruition will be simple. There are a lot of roadblocks ahead for both of these endeavors, so staying the course will be vital.

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