The latest “race to the Moon” may really be a race for rare earth metals
NASA offers to buy Moon resources mined by private companies. Meanwhile, a Chinese company is launching asteroid-mining robot into space in November
While the country was focused on the coronavirus pandemic in early April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order establishing U.S. policy on the the mining of off-Earth resources.
This order supplemented a 2015 federal law explicitly allowing American companies and citizens to use moon and asteroid resources but stressed that there would not be a need to get bogged down with international treaties to do so. In other words, neither the Moon nor asteroids would be viewed as “global commons.”
I have often noted the need for rare earth metals for products critical to our country, both for the military as well as private industry. As Trump explores decoupling from China, it would be easier to do if the U.S. had a reliable source of these elements.
It seems that National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) now has its eyes set on the Moon’s resources, including these critical substances. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstin says the agency is seeking help from companies to extract materials from the lunar body and bring them back home.
“The requirements we’ve outlined are that a company will collect a small amount of Moon “dirt” or rocks from any location on the lunar surface, provide imagery to NASA of the collection and the collected material, along with data that identifies the collection location, and conduct an “in-place” transfer of ownership of the lunar regolith or rocks to NASA,” Bridenstine explained. The space agency said it was ready to pay between $15,000 to $25,000 for 50 to 500 grams for lunar samples, following which the material would become the sole property of NASA.
NASA wants this to happen before the 2024 Artemis Mission, which will send the first woman and the next man to the moon. “We will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars,” Bridenstine wrote.
According to NASA, the Moon is a treasure trove of rare metals. Copper, aluminum, iron, and other rare earth elements mined from the lunar body can help build smartphones, computers, and medical equipment. Though 90% of these resources are produced in China, the country will eventually run out of supplies, the agency said.
This is an important step in expanding options for obtaining essential resources.
“This is one small step for space resources, but a giant leap for policy and precedent,” Mike Gold, NASA’s chief of international relations, told Reuters.
“They are paying the company to sell them a rock that the company owns. That’s the product,” Joanne Gabrynowicz, former editor-in-chief of the Journal of Space Law, said in an interview. “A company has to decide for itself if it’s worth taking the financial and technological risk to do this to sell a rock.”
Hopefully, the public-private venture will get started soon. A Chinese company has planned to launch its first asteroid-mining robot into orbit in two months.
Origin Space, a Beijing-based private space resources company, is set to send Neo-1, a 30-kilo (66-pound) small satellite carried by a Chinese Long-March series rocket, into space in November.
Despite dubbing the spacecraft ‘space-mining robot’, the upcoming mission is to test its capabilities of identifying and extracting valuable resources rather than actually mining an asteroid, the firm says.
Clearly, the race is on.
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Yeah, well, the moon will have no consolidated deposits of anything.
It is a haphazard collection of space debris.
If you find anything of value, it is luck.
Not necessarily. You can clearly see the sites of large asteroid impacts (the craters, obviously), so those would be prime targets for initial missions.
But just like mining on earth, you don’t just randomly start digging. You survey and analyze the area for various markers that help predict where large deposits will be, and THEN you start digging. From all evidence there will be quite a lot of the resources in question.
However, finding it isn’t the hard part. The HARD part is to get it back to Earth, for the simple reason that you have to have an effective transport system to actually move any kind of actually impactful quantity.
For reference – in 2018, China produced 120,000 metric TONS of Rare Earth Metals, which was 70% of the global total.
Some simple math tells you at 70% of the total, and at 2205 lbs per ton, that was 378 MILLION POUNDS of Rare Earth Metals produced and used on Earth.
They haven’t even started working on the real problem – getting millions of pounds of metal back to Earth so it could actually be used.
The HARD part is to get it back to Earth
Which could be avoided if you do your ore processing and manufacturing in space or on the moon itself. You also wouldn’t have the worry about polluting earth’s biosphere.
The immediate problem with space-based refining is pollution, in particular, pebbles. In orbit, everything stays where you put it. If you start with a ten-ton rock and want to refine all the good stuff out of it, the first step is to break it up into dust, which tends to wander off. Refine a few hundred tons of rock and your whole refinery is surrounded by various flecks of raw material, moving at random velocities depending on how they got knocked loose. Some of that will drift ‘forward’ or ‘backward’ in the orbital track, leaving a cosmic shotgun for other spacecraft passing through.
Yeah, we’ve got a lot of work to do in order to get where we are going.
(darned lack of edit function) Getting it all back to Earth is actually one of the easier tasks, once you get processing. Melted iron (a waste product) in zero gravity can be ‘foamed’ into something that looks much like a sponge, but has a density about a quarter of water. Make a giant ‘shuttlecock’ out of foamed iron or aluminum, park your few tons of refined metal in the center, and de-orbit the thing with a tiny ion thruster over the course of a few weeks. The shallow entry into atmosphere will keep it from overheating much, and if you lose a meter of metal foam off the bottom, big deal. Target your splashdown into the ocean sufficiently far enough away from shipping to be safe, hook up a tug to the floating ‘fried egg’ thing, and tow it into the processing port of your choice. As a bonus prize, the leftover foamed iron or aluminum is even useful for other projects.
When you mix Iron and Aluminum, you have Thermite.
Little burns better or hotter.
They don’t intend to bring it back.
Nobody is even whispering about the logistics to bring it home.
You won’t have deposits.
There is no volcanic activity, and no water…
No activity that would form a deposit.
You can look at a crater, and think you know where the pieces are.
They are all over.
The race is on and the diversity hires at NASA are on the couch arguing while the real pioneers run.
NASA hasn’t been relevant to space exploration since the 90’s. The best and brightest used to DREAM of working for NASA and of being an astronaut.
Now they’re more concerned about crap like OMG FIRST WOMAN ON THE MOON, while they have to pay another country to get to the freaking ISS.
NASA is a JOKE.
Trump is changing that and we must have 4 more years of him followed by 8 with DeSantis
I certainly would advise my kids not to sign up for a jaunt on a spacecraft designed by people who think that copper and iron are rare earth elements.
Exactly so. Not to mention aluminum.
Taking mass out of the moon in industrial mining quantities. What could go wrong.
It will just be smaller when it eventually hits Earth at a somewhat later date to be determined.
Watched a great documentary on gold awhile back. It turns out that there was lots of gold dissolved in the Magma and that the gold has a tendency to self-aggregate. Plate tectonics on the West Coast caused the layer of the crust to compress and crumple into vertical slabs with fault lines and gaps between them, which the molten quartz, chock full of gold chunks, willingly flowed into. That is why we have seams of metals in certain locations. The thing is, as far as I know, there is no plate tectonics on the Moon which assists in this type of mineral sorting. Gonna be sorting though A LOT of dust looking for the goodies.
Or we could go to Wyoming and California.
Kind of hard to get rare “Earth” metals on the moon isn’t it?
I thought that also, until I remembered the moon was once part of the earth.
“Rare earths” is a bit of a misnomer. They’re not so much “rare” as “scattered”; they’re not found in dense veins which can be extracted with a shovel, but rather have to be separated out with tedious processes involving long series of solvent vats. As an added bonus, in some cases the wastewater from these processes is a bit more toxic than we would like. And since some of these ores are commonly found mixed in with throrium, the waste can be somewhat radioactive. So the country which can best produce industrially useful quantities at prices the commercial market will bear will be the country with the most laissez-faire attitude to environmental regulation. Like, well, ahhh, China. That’s the Chinese production secret; not that that particular 3 million squares miles of earth’s crust has more of the rare earths than anywhere else, but that the locals are willing to extract it.
An obvious way to attack the environmental issues would be to take regulation out of the hands of government agencies which believe that the best regulation is more regulation, and do it instead with people who know what they’re doing. Yes, easier said than done . . . but still easier than getting the ore from the moon.
Meanwhile government will seriously pervert the market with stunts like “The space agency said it was ready to pay between $15,000 to $25,000 for 50 to 500 grams for lunar samples“. Not even Apple or Tesla pays anything within orders of magnitude of that for these metals. But such ridiculous numbers are necessary to even consider space mining. Remember the Magic Number of rocket science—it costs $10,000 per pound to put any payload in earth orbit. Going to the moon costs more, coming back costs a bit less. Flying rocks around is expensive. Getting a small pile to put under glass in the Smithsonian is one thing; getting enough to put in the world’s iPhones is altogether different.
Yes. From the Wyoming link I posted above
“Mining was in the planning stages for one major Wyoming REE [rare earth element] deposit in the Bear Lodge Mountains in Crook County. Unfortunately, weak market conditions and a lengthy permitting process [!] caused Rare Element Resources, Ltd. to temporarily suspend the project as of January 2016. The potential exists for the occurrence of additional REE deposits across the state.”
It is many orders of magnitude less expensive to get to Wyoming and back than it is to get to the moon and back. The Union Pacific Railroad would be happy to carry the freight. Plus it is much easier to keep miners alive in Wyoming than on the moon. California is also easy to get to, but the permitting process is likely to be difficult unless the federal government, e.g. the Defense Department, makes REE mining and refining a vital national priority.
See: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
Any process for moving large quantities of rock or metal from the moon to the Earth is indistinguishable from an orbital kinetic weapon.
Even with Yankee ingenuity, it will likely be several decades before any real exploitation of mineral resources on the Moon will take place. It will require an entire infrastructure stretching from the surface of Earth to lower Earth orbit, to lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon. But, this accomplishes two things. It gets future travel between celestial bodies a jump start and turn the attention of certain hostile agencies outward, away from Earth.
It would be a LOT cheaper to just reopen the existing, but closed, rare earth mines in California and Colorado.
Yes, this is really a race for the gold in taxpayer’s wallets. Do not trust your government to mine rare earths at the most economical price.
Given the cost of boosting anything into LEO, it would be cheaper to simply invade China and take their deposits by force.
Mining the Moon or asteroids is pulp science fiction on the level of rocket rayguns and bug-eyed monsters. The Moon was once part of the Earth. There are no massive veins of pure unobtainium sitting just under the layer of dust that would justify the ridiculous cost of trying to mine there.
There is no need to protect the environment in space?
From a practical viewpoint, this is all a matter of hype, with people looking for excuses to get funding. Bringing back rare earths, either as ore, or as purified metals, from the moon will never be competitive with digging on Earth.
The cost of bring back moon rocks was about $300,000 per gram in today’s dollars.
Private industry could probably bring that number down by a couple of orders of magnitude, but the cost will always include the energy and technology costs to escape low Earth orbit and the energy costs of moving the ore out of the moon’s gravity well and the vehicle to provide shielded re-entry. Those costs will never be competitive with simply going out and digging in the established mines in CA and WY, and prospecting for other mines in the US.
Asteroids can be mined all we want. Please, don’t touch the moon though! Also, they wouldn’t be rare “earth” minerals.
Copper, aluminum and iron are not “rare earth” metals, nor are they rare on Earth. America mines both copper and iron. Aluminum is not common in America.
Nobody is mining any of these metals on the Moon. Say you find a rich deposit of copper. What the hell do you do with it, bring it to Earth for smelting?