Skip to comments.Moon mining: want to invest in the final frontier?
Posted on 11/21/2001 8:23:23 PM PST by CommiesOut
|FEATURE - Moon mining: want to invest in the final frontier?|
By Jeremy Smith LONDON, Nov 22 (Reuters) - Space, the last frontier remaining to be truly explored and exploited by man. Vast mineral riches are believed to lie in its cold depths, especially on the moon -- an untapped resource just waiting for its first commercial landing. Could it ever be possible to replenish the earth's supplies of gemstones and little-known rare metals such as osmium and rhodium by sending humans, or even robots, into space to set up mining ventures on the inhospitable surface of the moon? An increasing number of private firms see no reason to wait for the world's governments to take the lead and are racing to launch their own space mining missions. "Governments have no reason to go back to the moon. They've been there, there's no political reason to go back. But there are a lot of private reasons to go back," said Ian Randal Strock, a director of U.S.-based Artemis Society International (ASI). ASI is helping sponsor a project to build a commercial manned moon base and plans its first lunar flight in the next 10 years. According to Strock, technology is not the problem -- rather, just how to raise the massive amounts of cash required. "If we had sufficient money, then it's just a matter of getting the pieces together, getting a launch and we're there. The big delay in any project to the moon is funding," he said. "We're looking at $1.5 billion for that first flight," he said. "We have four companies up and running and making money, and we're looking to send up a robotic camera in two years." The United Nations' 1979 Moon Treaty, one of several international outer space agreements, attempted to define the scope of private space activity. However, it was never ratified by some major powers such as Russia and the United States. The treaty stipulated that any wealth obtained from the moon by any space-faring nation was to be distributed to all the people of the world. One clause, referring to space resources as the "common heritage of mankind", has been taken by private firms as legitimising efforts to mine on the moon and asteroids. The handful of private firms competing to be the first to establish commercial lunar mining are convinced of a lucrative market for whatever they might eventually ship back to Earth. To back up their claims, they cite a famous sale of Russian lunar samples held at a New York Sotheby's auction in 1993, where a pebble of moon rock weighing less than one carat fetched an astounding $442,000, or $2,200 a milligram. According to Applied Space Resources (ASR), a moon mission costing less than $100 million could return a quantity of lunar material with enough demand in the marketplace to make the return on investment attractive to financial backers. A private company based in New York state, ASR aims to send an unmanned spacecraft to an unexplored region of the moon and return the first lunar samples to earth in more than 25 years. "We have been at this for four years now -- we can do this technologically and we believe that the market exists," said Denise Norris, ASR's president. "The biggest hurdle is that we need about three to three and a half years to integrate everything. "If everything moves on schedule, we would be launching within five years," she said, adding that ASR would soon be looking for $4 million in financing. SCARCE METALS Scientists believe the elements making up most of the earth are also present on the moon and make up most of its composition. Analysis of lunar rock samples indicates a wide variety of elements, with oxygen and silicon being relatively plentiful. Germanium, molybdenum, tungsten, rhenium and gold rank among the rarer metals present, in small percentages. Cobalt, nickel, iron, aluminium, magnesium, manganese, calcium, sodium and titanium also feature. But of more immediate commercial interest are the six elements known as the Platinum Group Metals (PGMs) -- iridium, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhodium and ruthenium. Among the world's scarcest metals, the PGMs possess unique chemical and physical qualities that make them vital industrial materials. They are especially valued for their catalytic functions, conductivity and resistance to corrosion. "There are certain minerals and precious metals that we are going to find where the supply is going to drop off soon," said ASR's Norris. "I believe that the platinum group metals are going to be a real problem on earth, with fuel-cell technology." Fuel-cells, which are being developed to operate without fossil fuels, use around 10 times more platinum than internal combustion engines, mainly as a catalyst. If they were to be in widespread use, platinum demand would rocket. Norris added, "but it'd be extremely foolish to say we're going to make a ton of money selling platinum group metals here. The resources are there and there's a lot of stuff up there," she said, adding that this was mostly from asteroid impacts on the moon. PRACTICAL PROBLEMS However, the daunting number of practical problems facing a would-be moon miner may prove insurmountable, scientists say. The largest obstacle is the lack of water, used in large quantities in most earth mining operations but only believed to exist as ice at the lunar poles. Water has been responsible for shaping the earth with its alluvial strata and mineral deposits. Notwithstanding a similar lack of oxygen, which does exist on the moon but is bound up in compounds that are hard to break down, the low-gravity situation means that robotic mining would probably be more sustainable than sending humans into space. "Nobody is going to think of doing (moon) mining with human beings," said Richard Taylor, a council member of the British Interplanetary Society. "We aren't going to have little men with tin hats holding picks in their hands," he said. "All this exploitation of asteroid material will be robotic and remote." Finding the actual mineral deposits could also prove tricky. While the earth concentrates minerals in specific areas by dint of volcanic eruptions, the moon is volcanically inactive so new ways of locating minerals would have to be found. So far, there is little hard evidence about in what form or where minerals are found on the moon, although scientists have made educated guesses based upon studies of lunar soil and rock samples. "What you want is a means of establishing what exists where, and whether there are local concentrations. That requires very comprehensive mineral mapping," Taylor said. "The moon has a semi-molten core but we're not going to see crystal formation or those types of veining that you would see on the earth with precious metals," said ASR's Norris. "There is no crystallisation in the same way that we see on earth." EXORBITANT COSTS Apart from the serious practical problems involved with any activity on the lunar surface, the first obstacle for companies looking to mine on the moon is cost -- and return on investment. Experts say the cost of transporting items into space is exorbitant, ranging between $2,000 and $3,000 per pound of weight, meaning that any lunar bases would really have to be able to procure their necessities from space. "If there was a layer of gold a foot thick floating over the earth at an altitude at which we could send up a shuttle to go up and collect, it wouldn't be worth doing it," said Taylor. "This is for the simple reason that it would cost more per gram to go up and bring the gold back than the gold would actually fetch," he said. "And a lot of these metals have high values on earth only because they are rare." The real key to lunar mining, Taylor said, was to reduce the cost of sending a craft into space so that its operators could afford to have a vehicle which went up partially empty into space and came back partially empty. 21 NOV 2001 23:30:11
I guess it is probably better than if it went up empty into space and came back empty.
Ahh, come on, have a heart.
Alternatively, we could send a robotically-operated minifactory to the Moon which would manufacture projectile shell casings for shipping metals back to Earth. The shells would be fired from the Moon, using oxygen compression. Such pressurized guns have been tested on Earth with velocities that equal lunar escape velocity.
This was the technology I used in my story, Incident at Clavius Gulch.
But.....it really wouldn't be beyond the ability of private business to do this....
But would the government allow it to happen???
After all...if PRIVATE individuals start moving into space...could the government still CONTROL them???
(After all...to them losing voters is a 'bad thing')
But if they returned a large quantity, it wouldn't be so rare and valuable, would it?
"The treaty stipulated that any wealth obtained from the moon by any space-faring nation was to be distributed to all the people of the world."
The "have-nots" trying to run the lives of the "haves" again.
A good working definition of the U.N. in general.
|Two Chinese women walk past a billboard featuring a picture of the space shuttle, on a Beijing street Friday, Nov. 23, 2001. China on Thursday announced that it would send men into space by 2005, and that plans for a manned mission to the moon are under way. The billboard promotes a Beijing newspaper called Star Daily. (AP Photo/Greg Baker)|
You missed it.
Too much government involvement to make it profitable. ;^)
One way to break this catch-22 is to start up a lunar hotel. The only way a lunar hotel will be profitable will be with much cheaper launch costs. The Russians already launch payloads into orbit for about $600/lb. This is sufficient to enable construction of a hotel and maintain a potential profit.
Because of various laws, we'll have to wait until a private American or European launch company can offer launch costs in this range. I think there will be several companies that will achieve sub-$1000/lb. launch costs within 5 years.
NASA has no interest in such activities so they will not be involved, but that's a good thing. We can't afford a $100 billion lunar base that would keep out civilians. You build a colony/city with NON astronauts.