Mining on the Moon

Alan Cai

November 11, 2022

The struggle for natural resources has been one of the foremost causes of conflict throughout history. Some resources, such as food and water, can be replenished as the seasons or years go by. Others, such as petroleum or natural gas, will be continuously drained until an alternative is found. However, research conducted by various institutions including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration(NASA) strongly indicates that some depleted yet extremely coveted resources may have an alternative acquisition source: the moon.

Metals and rare earth minerals(sometimes referred to as rare earth elements) are the core component of industrialized nations today. Infrastructure, vehicles, appliances, electronics, and other goods heavily depend on metals such as iron and aluminum to operate. A shortage of these metals will indefinitely choke the supply chain and cause widespread inflation and shortages, the likes of which consumers have never felt before. Rare earth minerals play an equally important role in today’s economy. Contrary to what the name suggests, most rare earth minerals, such as Lanthanum and Ytterbium, are not extremely rare. However, ores often contain smaller quantities of them. Therefore, they are more difficult to extract. The names of the elements may not be familiar to most audiences but their usages are certainly widespread. Rare earth elements are a crucial component of consumer electronics, lasers, x-rays, fluorescent lightbulbs, fiber optics, nuclear power plants, telescopes, some dentures, and most cancer treatments. Over 90% of US rare earth element imports are from China, whose own domestic reserves are slowly being drained. Experts estimate that some rare earth metals may be used up as early as 20 years.

Early samples of lunar soil(the layer of dust coating the moon’s surface) show encouraging signs of rare earth minerals and other metals. Scientists speculate that silver, titanium, and other important metals could also be obtained in large quantities beneath the moon’s surface. Many space-oriented corporations such as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic have floated plans of landing on, and potentially exploiting the moon’s resources. Economists additionally estimate that if moon mining were to become feasible, the resources mined on the moon could be worth trillions of US dollars.

In addition to alleviating the ever-increasing rarity of rare earth minerals and metals on Earth, mining on the moon may also have the added benefit of increasing environmental protection on Earth. Arctic Ocean drilling has been a seriously considered prospect in recent years, especially as the ice covering the northern sea begins to crack and melt. Despite not reducing the lucrative fossil fuels some companies hope to find, the moon will definitely solve the necessity for minerals and metals. Reducing potential drilling in the Arctic Ocean will result in massive environmental benefits and will also ease tensions between the United States, Russia, and other nations invested in the region.

International agreements have conflicting stances on the issue of jurisdiction for celestial objects such as the moon. The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, otherwise known as the Moon Treaty, establishes that the moon ought to be governed by international agreement. However, major spacefaring nations have not acceded to the agreement, including the United States, Russia, and China, rendering its effectiveness extremely limited. The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, better known as the Outer Space Treaty, restricts the use of outer space for warfare and weapons of mass destruction but did not touch the subject of mining. The US Federal Government encourages private mining activity in space through its passage of the US Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015 and reaffirmed its stance via executive order in 2020.

Mining on the moon, although a very intriguing topic on paper, will be very complex and difficult when steps are taken toward its implementation. Considering the world’s modern trajectory, moon mining may be inevitable, but numerous engineering hurdles and practical considerations remain in the way. The future is bright for the moon and humanity may soon be granted a whole new world to explore.