In previous posts, we’ve discussed the scientific, economic, and geopolitical issues surrounding the rare earth elements. In 2010, China’s implementation of strict export controls on rare earth shipments to Japan sparked global anxiety; at the time, China was responsible for ~97% of global rare earth production. Although the dominance of Chinese REE extraction has declined since that time, the crises got people thinking about how to diversify rare earth element production.
One radical solution: mining the moon.
Scientists still know surprisingly little about the geology of the moon. However, our limited knowledge suggests that rare earth elements are present in extractable quantities. The Moon Mineralogy Mapper, a probe launched by NASA in 2008, provided important evidence that make lunar mining a possibility – it determined that the moon was likely entirely molten at the time of its formation. This is important because a molten body can differentiate, resulting in elements being concentrated together.
Although the current economics of space-flight and the rare earth elements may not allow for lunar mining, plenty of organizations are planning ahead for a future where lunar mining is an essential part the global economy. For example, both Google and NASA have offered a 30 million dollar prize to the first private company to operate robotic rovers on the moon. Since most experts predict that lunar mining will be carried out by automated robots, this is a critical first step.
Once company, Moon Express, has claimed that it will begin mining operations as early as 2016, although most space exploration authorities are sceptical.
Of course, the opportunities presented by the moon extend beyond the mining of rare earth elements.
Take the example of Helium 3, an isotope of helium carried by the solar wind and theoretically one of the best fuels for nuclear fusion. Helium 3 isn’t found on Earth thanks to our atmosphere. Since the moon has no atmosphere, scientists expect there to be mineable quantities of the isotope.
One scholar has calculated that, if fusion were developed successfully, each ton of helium 3 mined from the moon could be worth up to 3 billion dollars at current energy prices. That’s 300 times the value of the most expensive rare earth element, Lutetium!
Finally, the presence of water on the moon, as determined by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper, could be a significant resource in itself. Water, combined with solar or another source of energy, could be broken down into hydrogen (useful as rocket fuel) and oxygen (useful to human colonizers).