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It is thought that billions of tons of water and rare earth elements, like uranium and thorium exist on the moon, and private companies are aiming to obtain them. The European Space Agency even has plans to build a moon village.
According to the Congressional Research Service, an arm of the U.S. Congress, the use of rare earth elements for national defense is desired. As such Carle Pieters, a member of NASA’s Lunar Science Institute (NSLI), along with researchers at the Department of Geological Sciences at Brown University in Providence, RI, reviewed the production of elements such as europium and tantalum outside of the United States and highlighted supply vulnerability. Many of the rare earth elements are believed to be present on the moon due to examinations of samples taken so far.
Pieters is principal investigator for NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), which is a probe that the Indian Space Research Organization used to explore the moon from October 2008 until late August 2009. Among its discoveries, the M3 found evidence of the processes for a series of mineral concentrations. For example, the M3 detected a new lunar rock, a unique mixture of plain-old plagioclase, which is plentiful in the Earth’s crust, and the gemstone pink spinel, an arrangement of magnesium, aluminum, and oxygen.
An interesting resource sought is helium-3 that can be used for nuclear fusion. Rare as it is formed in the sun, helium-3 can be found in the unshielded moon and not the magnetic-shielded earth. Some industry professionals believe the levels of helium-3 on the moon could fuel earth for over a thousand years.
Property Rights in Space
With interests in minerals and other substances known and being acted upon, President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (H.R. 2262) into law in November of 2015. Seen as a giant step in securing property rights in space, the law recognizes the right of U.S. citizens to own asteroid resources.
One company happy about this turn of legal events is Planetary Resources, in January of 2016 with partner 3D Systems they developed the first direct metal print from asteroid metals. The company is initially interested in the 4,000 asteroids that are believed to be closer to earth than moon. Moon Express is another privately funded company, so fixated on the moon they built MX-1, the first privately built Moon-capable robotic lander with the help of NASA.
NASA's Lunar CATALYST
NASA is also working with Astrobotic Technologies of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Masten Space Systems of Mojave, California, to develop commercial robotic spacecrafts.
These companies were selected as part of its lunar initiative, known as Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST). This initiative aims to spur new commercial capabilities to reach the moon and tap into its resources, including oxygen and water. Under the initiative, no exchange of funds between NASA and the companies is taking place, instead NASA is contributing technical expertise, allowing access to agency center test facilities, and loaning equipment or software for lander development and testing.
The Race to the Moon
A race is therefore on both public and private sectors, with China in the running as it’s Jade Rabbit lander went to the moon in December 2013 and subsequent plans were made for establishing bases.
NASA continues to help the private sector and other governments under Lunar Catalyst, and their objectives cited include; improving transport and supporting science and exploration objectives, such as sample returns, geophysical network deployment, resource prospecting, and technology demonstrations.
References and Further Reading
Mining the Moon Becomes a Serious Prospect
Billionaire Teams up with NASA to Mine the Moon
President Obama Signs Bill Recognizing Asteroid Resource Property Rights into Law
European Space Agency want to Build Village on the Moon