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Mining the moon | Salon.com



If you were transported to Moon this very instant, you would surely and quickly die. That's because there's no atmosphere, the surface temperature varies from a roasting of 130 degrees Celsius (266 F) to a bone-chilling minus 170 C (minus 274 F). If the lack of air or horrific heat or cold do not kill you then micrometeorite bombardment or solar radiation will. By all accounts, the Moon is not a hospitable place to be.

But if human beings are exploring the moon and potentially live there one day, we will need to learn how to deal with these challenging environmental conditions. We will need habitats, air, food and energy, as well as fuel to power rockets back to Earth and possibly other destinations. That means we will need resources to meet these requirements. We can either bring them with us from Earth ̵

1; an expensive proposition – or we will need to take advantage of the resources on the Moon itself.

Underpinning efforts to use lunar materials is the desire to establish either temporary or even permanent human settlements on the Moon – and there are numerous benefits to doing so. For example, lunar bases or colonies could provide invaluable training and preparation for missions to farther flung destinations, including Mars. Developing and utilizing lunar resources will probably lead to a vast number of innovative and exotic technologies that could be useful on Earth, as has been the case with the International Space Station

As a planet geologist, I'm fascinated by how other worlds came to be, and what lessons we can learn about the formation and evolution of our own planet. And, because one day I hope to actually visit the moon in person, I'm particularly interested in how we can use the resources to make human exploration of the solar system as economical as possible

In-situ resource utilization
ISRU sounds like science fiction, and for the moment it is largely. This concept involves identifying, extracting and processing material from the lunar surface and interior and converting it into something useful: oxygen for breathing, electricity, construction materials, and even rocket fuel

Many countries have expressed a renewed desire to go back to the Moon. NASA has a lot of plans to do so, China has landed a rover on the lunar farside in January and has an active rover there right now, and many other countries have their sights set on lunar missions.

Anticipation of lunar living is a driving engineering and experimental work to determine how to efficiently use lunar materials to support human exploration. For example, the European Space Agency is planning to land a spacecraft at the lunar South Pole in 2022 to drill down the surface in search of water ice and other chemicals. This craft will feature a research instrument designed to obtain water from the lunar soil or regolith.

There have been discussions of eventually mining and shipping back to Earth, the helium-3 locked in the lunar regolith. Helium-3 (and non-radioactive isotope of helium) could be used as a fuel for fusion reactors to produce vast amounts of energy at a very low environmental cost – although fusion as a power source has not yet been demonstrated, and the volume of extractable helium -3 is unknown. However, even as the true cost and benefits of the lunar ISRU remain to be seen, there is little reason to believe that the considerable current interest in the mining of Moon will not continue

It's worth noting that the Moon may not be especially valuable destinations for mining other valuable metals such as gold, platinum or rare earth elements. This is because of the process of differentiation, in which relatively heavy material sinks and lighter materials rise when a planetary body is partially or nearly completely molten.

This is basically what happens if you shake a test tube filled with sand and water . At first, everything is mixed together, but then the sand eventually separates from the liquid and sinks to the bottom of the tube. And just as for Earth, most of the Moon's inventory of heavy and valuable metals are probably deep in the mantle or even the core, where they are basically impossible to access.

Lunar formation
Indeed, the Moon holds a special place in the planetarium science because it is the only other body in the solar system where human beings have set foot. The NASA Apollo program in the 1960s and 70s saw a total of 12 astronauts walk, bounce and rove on the surface. The rock samples brought back and the experiments they left have enabled a better understanding of our Moon, but of how planets form in general, than would ever be possible

From these missions, and others over ensuing decades, scientists have learned a great deal about the moon. Instead of growing from a cloud of dust and ice as the planets in the solar system, we've discovered that our nearest neighbor is probably the result of a gigantic impact between the proto-Earth and a Mars-sized object. That collision ejected a huge volume of debris, some of which later coalesced into the Moon. From analyzes of lunar samples, advanced computer modeling and comparisons with other planets in the solar system, we have learned among many other things that colossal impacts could be the rule, not the exception, in the early days of this and other planetary systems.

Carrying out scientific research on Moon would yield dramatic increases in our understanding of how our natural satellites came to be, and what processes work on and in the surface to make it look the way it does. hold the promise of a new era of lunar exploration, with people living there for extended periods of time enabled by the extraction and use of Moon's natural resources. With a steady, determined effort, then, the moon can not only be a home to future explorers, but the perfect stepping stone to take our next giant leap

Paul K. Byrne, Assistant Professor of Planetary Geology, North Carolina State University

This article is published in The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article


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