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Mining the moon: The 21st century gold rush

Five years ago, if you had brought up moon mining among geologists, “you would have been laughed out of the room,” said Gordon Osinski, founder and director of the Canadian Lunar Research Network, and an assistant professor of geology at the University of Western Ontario.

Times have changed. Mining on the moon and on asteroids, formerly the stuff of science fiction, is clearly in the sights of governments and, increasingly, private companies.

In February, NASA announced it was accepting applications from U.S. companies to build robots for lunar prospecting, a step toward creating an economy in space.

And there’s certainly a market for what’s up there. Many elements that are rare on Earth can be found aplenty on the moon. Satellite imaging has shown that the top 10 centimetres of regolith (moon soil) at the south pole of the moon appears to hold about 100 times the concentration of gold of the richest mines in the world, according to a recent paper coauthored by Dale Boucher, the CEO of Deltion Innovations, based in Sudbury, Ont.

“There is a business case now for mining (on the moon) as an economic activity,” said Boucher.

So why was the idea laughable five years ago? Getting off this planet is a herculean challenge, technically and economically. “Some of the present estimates are that a one-litre bottle of water soft-landed on the moon would cost about a quarter of a million dollars,” said Boucher.

But companies are working quickly to reduce that cost. Companies like SpaceX, which streamlines the production and usage of its space vehicles to make them economically viable, are showing that private businesses can get into space more cheaply and efficiently than countries can.

Once you’ve landed on the moon, you’re confronted with more challenges. The ground temperature is -200 C, there’s no atmosphere and solar radiation can damage equipment.

Not all the difficulties are technical, however. If lunar resource extraction becomes an international activity, there may be conflict over who owns those riches.

In 1967, two years before the first humans landed on the moon, the United Nations created the Outer Space Treaty, but that agreement was vague on resource extraction.

“Those policy and legal issues are going to be as challenging as the engineering,” said Osinski.

Despite its challenges, he anticipates that mining on the moon and asteroids will become a reality in 10 to 20 years.

“I think it is a question of when, not if.”

However, the Canadian Space Agency has no plans for large-scale extraterrestrial resource extraction, says Osinski.

What we want up there

H2O. Used for drinking and, when separated into hydrogen and oxygen with a little electricity, as rocket fuel.

Rare earth minerals — platinum, rhodium, gold. Not just bling, platinum group metals are used as catalysts in solar panels. Right now their cost is one of the barriers to making cheap solar cells.

Helium-3. A potential radiation-free fuel for nuclear energy production. Over billions of years, solar winds have embedded helium-3 into the top 10 centimetres of the moon’s soil.

Researchers believe helium-3, which is scarce on Earth, may be the key to fueling sustained, large-scale nuclear fusion reactions that could power cities. Nuclear fusion, the fusing of atoms, is different from current nuclear power plants, which run by nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms. Existing plants split radioactive isotopes of uranium, producing hazardous waste. Not a problem with helium-3, as it is not radioactive.

If reactors get past the research stage, helium-3 could provide the first-ever fuel for nuclear-energy production that doesn’t pose a risk of radiation.

Canada on the moon

Moon and asteroid mining is an opportunity Canada cannot afford to miss out on, according to Dale Boucher, CEO of Deltion Innovations.

Boucher’s Sudbury, Ont.-based company has developed a drill for extraterrestrial prospecting. In March 2012, NASA invited the Canadian Space Agency to provide Deltion’s drill system and a rover vehicle for a proposed lunar prospecting mission in 2018. The Canadian government must now decide whether to fund this.

The mission would research in-situ resource utilization — small-scale extraction and refining of resources that are used on the spot. These technologies, including Deltion’s drill, could be adapted to larger-scale operations.

The 2018 prospecting mission would sample the south pole of the moon for water ice, and would be the first-ever mission to the moon that would have a “mining flavour,” said Boucher. Water is an important first step, he explained. When split into oxygen and hydrogen, it’s a fuel that can be used to power further exploration.

“Canada is at a crossroads right now and the next few months will be very telling.”