Mining the Moon is Closer than Ever


For some it might sound like a futuristic tale, but for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Agency (NASA), the goal of mining the Moon seems closer than ever.

Last year, NASA inaugurated the first lunar mining competition in the hope that a future robotic mining operation on the moon could yield the energy needed to power earth's major cities and give the space agency a boost in the quest for major human exploration of planetary space.

The Lunabotics Mining Competition aims to generate "innovative ideas and solutions, which could be applied to actual lunar excavation for NASA," which, in turn, may just yield the energy that could power cities on earth and space exploration in the future.

The contest is open to students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. A group of universities can also work in collaboration on an excavator project entry.

In a 2004 article for Popular Mechanics, Geologist and last astronaut to have explored the moon, Harrison Schmitt, suggests that “learning how to mine the moon for helium-3 will create the technological infrastructure for our inevitable journeys to Mars and beyond." Schmitt is now a leading advocate for commercializing the moon.

Although considerable lunar soil would have to be processed to produce sufficient quantities of helium-3 to supply power for a major city for one year, Schmitt believes that fusion power plants operating on helium-3 would offer lower capital and operating costs due to their "less technical complexity, higher conversion efficiency [and] smaller footprint” and to “the absence of radioactive fuel, [the absence of ] air or water pollution, and only low-level radioactive waste disposal requirements."

"Perhaps the most daunting challenge to mining the moon is designing the spacecraft to carry the hardware and crew to the lunar surface," Schmitt advises. Nevertheless, he adds that such a pioneering mining venture "would pay more valuable dividends."

"Settlements established for helium-3 mining would branch out into other activities that support space exploration," Schmitt believes. "For an investment of less than $15 billion – about the same as was required for the 1970s Trans Alaska Pipeline – private enterprise could make permanent habitation on the moon the next chapter in human history."

Lunar Hydrogen

Planetary geologists speculate that the moon’s polar craters may hold billions of tons of hydrogen, perhaps even in the form of water ice. Intriguing evidence returned by the Lunar Prospector and the Clementine probes in the 1990s seems to support this idea.

The latest raft of lunar missions, including Chandrayaan-1 and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, confirmed it. In November last year NASA's scientists found "significant" amounts of water in a crater at the moon's south pole, a major discovery that will dramatically revise the characterization of the moon as a dead world and probably make it a more attractive destination for human space missions. Now in situ prospecting must determine the quantity, quality and accessibility of the hydrogen.

Discovering rich concentrations of hydrogen on the moon would open up a universe of possibilities—literally. Rocket fuels and consumables that now cost an average of US $10,000 per kilogram to loft could instead be produced on the moon much more cheaply.

For the first time, access to space would be truly economical. At last, people would be able to begin new ventures, including space tourism, space-debris cleanup, satellite refuelling and interplanetary voyages.

Lunar prospecting is highly costly —close to US $20 billion over a decade. Rovers would have to descend into the polar craters to sample the deposits and test for ice. Then they would have to move on to other spots to form an overall map, much as wildcatters do every day in oil fields.

Private Sector Steps In

Despite the costs, private initiatives keep emerging. Schmitt, for instance, is now a leading advocate for commercializing the moon. He is the chairman of Interlune Intermars Initiative Inc., an organization whose goal is to advance the private sector's acquisition and use of lunar resources.

Missouri University of Science and Technology professor L.S. Gertsch says that a number of engineering challenges can be expected during lunar mining and excavating. "Mining and excavation equipment is built to be robust, because it must deal with significant-and difficult-to-characterize ranges of material behaviour … Long-term operation of such equipment in the unfamiliar and extreme environment of the moon adds difficulties."

"Any prototype technology, or old technology used in a new way or place, requires significant development and testing," Gertsch says. "NASA is familiar with this, but the greatest challenge will be whether humanity has yet the political and financial will to carry the process through well enough to encourage success."

First place for the NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition is a $5,000 prize and VIP tickets to watch a launch at the Kennedy Space Center. The deadline for registration is around the corner: February 28, 2010, and the competition is scheduled to take place on May 27-28.

Those who enter the competition must also participate in a Lunabotics Outreach Project aimed at inspiring K-12 students to learn about robotics, engineering or lunar activities.

Links and References

Chandrayaan-1

Clementine

From Space Robotics to Underwater Mining

Harrison Schmitt

Helium-3

Interlune Intermars Initiative Inc.

Lunabotics Mining Competition

Lunar Prospector

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

Mining the Moon – Article from Popular Mechanics

Missouri University of Science and Technology

NASA

NASA Finds Water on the Moon

Space Tourism

Trans Alaska Pipeline