Russia plans resuming moon exploration as early as in 2016, with the first spacecraft leaving in 2018 and a manned mission scheduled for 2030. The ultimate purpose? Exploring the Earth’s satellite for rare earth elements, used in a variety of industries including green technology, defence systems and consumer electronics.
The Russian Academy of Sciences, the Moscow State University Sternberg Astronomical Institute and the Russian Federal Space Agency are some of the big names behind the $2.5 billion out-of-this-world exploration project, unveiled in August.
According to Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH), the Luna-25 mission will focus on retrieving comets fragments back to the Earth, which could result in a huge breakthrough, as the chemical composition of those celestial bodies remains a mystery to scientists.
The Sternberg Institute’s Head of the Department of Lunar and Planetary Research, Vladislav Shevchenko, told RBTH he believes the lunar surface is rich on rare earth metals. He sees moon exploration as a solution to the current shortage of rare earth metals, whose production is controlled by China, and trusts deliveries from space being potentially more cost-effective than mining for metals at home.
Working down here
But just in case the lunar plans don’t go as expected, the Urals are getting ready to launch rare earth production by 2017, using new technology to extract the coveted elements from uranium ore.
To promote this development, RBTH reported in September, the government will allocate $7.8 million (300 million rubles) to the Ural Federal University and another $9.3 million (360 million rubles) will be financed by Moscow-based company CJSC Energy Projects, the university’s partner.
With Russia entering the rare earth race, China — which once controlled 97% of the world’s trade of these elements— is set to lose its dominance in the market.
China Minmetals, itself a state-owned company, recently said that the country’s rare earths market share could drop to 65 %.
A recent paper by Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) says China’s shrinking market share is already happening.
In addition, for something with the namesake “rare”, many countries have domestic supplies of rare earth minerals as the paper’s author Eugene Gholz outlines. The United States, South Africa, Brazil, Chad, Congo, India and Kenya all have plentiful supplies domestically. But until China restricted its supply it wasn’t as economical to source from these countries because of the country’s economy of scale.