Futurism logo

Space Invaders: Is mining the moon a good idea?

The new space race isn’t just about joy flights for the super rich. Private organisations and governments are focused on mining the moon’s rich resources. But is mining the moon a good idea?

By Shane Peter ConroyPublished 2 months ago 11 min read
Photo by Nick Brunner on Unsplash

Forget the squared-jawed American astronaut versus the cagey Russian cosmonaut. The new space race is a battlefield for billionaire playboys and resource-hungry governments who are hell-bent on pointing their rockets at the sky. Virgin’s Richard Branson wants you to holiday in space. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wants you to work on his private space station. And Tesla’s Elon Musk wants you to live on Mars.

It all sounds like a galactic sci-fi fest for the space curious. But the new space race is not all beer and skittles. There are also some serious profits up for grabs, and our outer-atmosphere moguls — as well as the world’s major superpowers — are seeing dollar signs.

So we’re diving into the new space race to meet the masters of the universe, find out what the hell they’re doing in orbit, and figure out what it means for us humble Earthlings.

Want more articles like this? Subscribe to THE MALCONTENT for free and check out our podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Amazon Music.

Who’s in the space race?

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic claims it is ‘democratising space for the good of humankind’. It’s also charging $450,000 per 90-minute space flight. That’s $5,000 per minute you spend onboard the company’s spacecraft, VMS Eve. And when you get back to Earth, every Virgin Galactic astronaut has the opportunity to purchase a unique ‘Astronaut Edition’ Range Rover.

So Virgin Galactic passengers not only receive the enviable opportunity to experience — as the company describes it — a ‘life-changing transformation’ and a ‘cognitive shift in awareness and perspective’. But they’ll also get to flaunt their new space-explorer status when they roll into soccer practice in that sweet new limited edition Range Rover.

You’d be excused for thinking this sounds a little less like democratising space for the good of humankind, and a little more like turning it into yet another status symbol for the elite. But catering to the uber rich has always paid off. Virgin Galactic says it plans to begin commercial space flights in early 2023, and currently has around 800 seats reserved. That’s a cool $360 million in the pipeline for Branson’s first round of space flights.

Then there’s Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin is Bezos’ entry into the space race. Like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin has lofty, altruistic goals. The company sells itself as being ‘for the benefit of Earth’. Apparently, that also means sending the super wealthy on space flights that cost more than a black-market kidney.

But that’s not all Blue Origin has to offer Earthlings. Bezos is seeing Branson’s space flights and raising him a private space station. Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef space station is due to begin operations in 2027 and claims it “will provide anyone with the opportunity to establish their own address on orbit.”

And don’t forget Elon Musk and his SpaceX baby. He says he’s on the road to making humanity multiplanetary with the goal to design, build and launch a reusable transportation system that would be able to reach — and refuel on — Mars.

China also has an eye on the stars. In 2019, the country made the first ever soft landing on the far side of the moon, and in 2020 successfully ferried lunar samples back to Earth. China also quietly slipped into orbit around Mars in 2021, and successfully landed a rover on the surface of the red planet.

The US is watching closely too. The United States Space Force (USSF) is not only a Netflix comedy vehicle for actor Steve Carrell’s fictional shenanigans.

Carrell’s galactic caper comedy may actually be closer to documentary. The USSF is a real-world branch of the US military, and is preparing for potential space-based conflicts in the years ahead. Sound ominous? Then get a load of this. In a recent visit to Australia, the deputy commander of the US Space Command, Lieutenant-General John Shaw, warned of looming star wars:

“It may begin with what we call reversible effects of jamming of satellite communications and such, or of dazzling — directed energy [at] intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance platforms. [Or] it could be cyber attacks against our space systems and architecture — so not just the satellites but the links, the ground nodes and the user architecture — [and] ultimately it could go to some sort of kinetic activity.”

If that didn’t make you vomit in your mouth a little, then you’re probably not paying attention. It’s unlikely that ‘kinetic activity’ refers to earth-bound love making. Rather, it seems more likely that Lieutenant-General Shaw is hinting at some form of active battle with lightsabers — or their non-fictional equivalent — at the ready.

Want more articles like this? Subscribe to THE MALCONTENT for free and check out our podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Amazon Music.

So why all the interest in space?

While the United States Space Force certainly seems keen on living out their Star Wars fantasy, there’s another force in play here. That’s mining, which equals money — and lots of it.

It essentially comes down to the demand for rare earth metals — also known as rare earth elements. These are used in everything from your mobile phone and the battery in your electric car to wind turbines and military equipment — and the demand for rare earth metals in skyrocketing. In 2021, global manufacturers went through about 125,000 metric tons of rare earth metals. By 2030, forecasts suggest annual demand will grow to around 315,000 metric tons.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. China controls somewhere between 70 and 90 per cent of the global production and supply of rare earth metals. And, according to NASA, China’s reserves of rare earth metals may only last for another 15 to 20 years. In recent years, China has also threatened to cut off supply of rare earth metals to countries including the US, Japan and Australia. That’s making governments more than a little nervous — particularly as tensions between the US and China seem to show no signs of easing.

So what’s all this got to do with space? Well, according to former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine “there could be tons and tons of platinum group metals on the moon, rare-earth metals, which are tremendously valuable on Earth.”

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

That has pretty much everyone interested in mining the moon. And it’s not just rare earth metals that are driving the lunar gold rush. Governments and would-be moon mining moguls also have their eyes on other precious titanium ore deposits that are found at 10-times the concentration of similar deposits on Earth.

Then there’s Helium-3. Scientists believe this non-radioactive isotope could be used to fuel future nuclear fusion reactors — without producing dangerous waste products. Some sources estimate that the moon could be harbouring $1.543 quadrillion worth of Helium-3. That’s quadrillion. You can think of one quadrillion as a thousand million millions, a million billion or a thousand trillion. Anyway you split it, that’s a lot of cheddar.

Oh, and satellite imaging has revealed that there could be gold deposits at the south pole of the moon that may hold around 100 times more gold than Earth’s most productive gold mines.

Want more articles like this? Subscribe to THE MALCONTENT for free and check out our podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Amazon Music.

Can we actually mine the moon?

There’s really three questions to answer here. Is it legal to mine the moon? Is it ethical to mine the moon? And is it possible to mine the moon?

Let’s begin with the legalities of lunar mining. Whether it’s actually legal for governments and private organisations to mine the moon is a grey area. For starters, The Outer Space Treaty 1967 says countries can’t declare ownership of the moon.

But is building a mining operation on the moon the same thing as declaring ownership over the moon? The Artemis Accords suggests not. It’s a set of statements, principles and best practices that are designed to ensure the safe exploration of the moon — and beyond. In reference to space resources, the Artemis Accords state:

“The accord signatories affirm that extracting and utilizing space resources from the celestial bodies listed above is vital to supporting safe and sustainable space exploration. They also commit to informing the U.N. Secretary General, the public, and the scientific community of space resource extraction activities.”

So while the legalities of mining the moon may need to be tested in court at some point, the Artemis Accords certainly seem to be leaving plenty of wiggle room for signatories to extract and utilise space resources.

But is it ethical to mine the moon? That depends on your viewpoint. If you like your mobile phone, tablet, computer, electric car, wind turbines and pretty much anything that’s powered by a lithium-ion battery, then you’re probably going to need resources from the moon within the next couple of decades.

Then there’s the vast stores of Helium-3 on the moon. Helium-3 could solve Earth’s energy crisis with zero-emission fusion power. But fusion is not yet possible, and some scientists argue it never will be. And the enormous amounts of greenhouse gas-spewing fuel we’ll need to burn to launch moon mining craft could send climate change into overdrive before we even crack the mysteries of fusion.

The environmental impact of mining the moon is currently a guess at best. Scientists have already warned that mining lunar polar ice could disrupt the moon’s delicate balance. There’s also the question of whether it’s okay for private organisations to profit from the commercialisation of the moon’s natural resources, and how they’ll ensure the safety of their moon-based workers. And there’s always the chance of a moon-based resource rush sparking major conflicts between world superpowers.

Photo by malith d karunarathne on Unsplash

But before we fall into existential crisis about potential galactic destruction, we should probably consider whether it’s even possible to mine the moon. The answer is no — well, not yet. And rest assured that NASA, China and a handful of billionaire would-be space mining moguls are working very hard on developing the technology that would be required.

Our old friend Elon Musk is playing a central role here. His reusable SpaceX rockets are considerably reducing the cost of reaching the moon. NASA is already using SpaceX technology to send astronauts and suppliers to the international space station, so the prohibitive costs around getting the equipment and people to the moon needed to build a moon base may not be as prohibitive as they once were.

NASA and SpaceX are also working on developing new moon landers. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin also has plans to land on the moon within the next couple of years, and China is currently planning its next lunar expedition — complete with a prospecting rover and flying probe.

Still, plenty of new technological advancements will need to be made before we can start sucking precious metals out of the moon. NASA is planning to establish Artemis Base Camp on the moon in 2024, but — even if they’re successful — there’s still a large chasm to jump between a scientific base camp and a full lunar mining operation. Robotic lunar mining equipment will need to be designed and developed, moon-based processing facilities dreamed up, safe worker accommodation established, and SpaceX rockets — or an equivalent — will need to be capable of economically transporting the processed resources back to Earth.

Food for thought

Whether we like it or not, the billionaire boys’ club is set to add to their fortunes in space. Private entrepreneurs are busy developing the technological advancements that will define the next era in space exploration — and exploitation.

NASA looks likely to leverage these technologies to get US astronauts back on the moon, and potentially establish a moon base that could be the precursor of a mining operation. But China also looks to be intent on claiming its stake in the lunar gold rush, and whether this sparks major conflict with the US remains to be seen.

At the same time, the demand for rare earth metals is only going to increase. The global move to electric cars and battery-stored renewable energy will continue to power this demand, and world governments will not want to be held hostage by China’s stranglehold on the Earth-bound supply of rare earth metals.

And if scientists do crack the fusion puzzle within the next decade or so, our capability to access the moon’s rich stores of Helium-3 to generate zero-waste energy could be our last, best chance to halt climate change and preserve the planet for generations to come.

Will that come with a heavy impact on a delicate lunar environment we understand little about? Probably. But it wouldn’t be the first time humanity has destroyed a pristine environment in our thirst for valuable resources — and private profits.

Want more articles like this? Subscribe to THE MALCONTENT for free and check out our podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Amazon Music.


About the Creator

Shane Peter Conroy

Shane is just another human. He writes, he paints, he reads. He once got his tongue stuck to the inside of a freezer. Actually, he did it twice because he thought the first time might have been a fluke. https://themalcontent.substack.com

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2023 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.