Mining on the Moon

As man moves out into space - eventually one of the goals will be to find natural resources on other planets and satellites. We look to Mars or the Moon as the perhaps the best places to find many of the natural resources we are using up on the physical planet.

Given the current state of Earth-to-orbit boost technology, it is neither economical nor environmentally friendly to use rockets to loft the enormous volume of materials from the Earth's surface to build structures of the size of solar power satellites and space colonies in Earth orbit. Fortunately, NASA's Apollo missions of the last century found that Lunar surface soils are comprised of about 20 percent metals (suitable for space construction) and 20 percent silicon (which is needed for making solar power cells). Much of the rest of lunar soil is composed of oxygen.

Huge boulders at Taurus-Littrow, apparently dislodged from bedrock farther up the slopes of the upland hills near the Apollo 17 landing site, were sampled by astronauts such as Harrison Schmitt.Since the Moon essentially has no atmosphere, its lack of atmospheric drag and weak gravitational pull makes it practical to use electromagnetic mass accelerators ("mass drivers") to loft construction materials from its surface to near Earth orbit -- i.e., as a steady stream of small payloads to a precise collection point in space. Mass driver technology was tested late in the last century under the sponsorship of the Space Studies Institute (SSI), the nonprofit foundation founded by the late physicist and visionary Gerard K. O'Neill (1990-92).

The NASA Apollo missions found that Lunar soil is composed of useful elements such as oxygen, silicon, and metals such as iron and aluminum. The Moon also has other advantages as a source of construction materials for near Earth orbit . Its weak surface gravity is only one-sixth as strong as Earth's. As a result, in combination with its small diameter, it takes less than five percent as much energy to boost materials from the Lunar surface into orbit compared with the launch energy needed from Earth's surface into orbit.

Electromagnetic mass drivers powered by solar energy could provide low-cost transportation of Lunar materials to space construction sites. Lunar mining of materials for further construction on the Moon and for solar power satellites and space colonies in Earth orbit would be powered by solar collectors.

The needs of 12 workers could be met by a 16-meter diameter inflatable habitat with facilities for exercise, operations control, clean up, lab work, hydroponic gardening, a wardroom, private crew quarters, dust-removing devices for lunar surface work, an airlock, and lunar rover and lander vehicles. Though Moon Mining will one day occur - as of this post - it would be a very expensive project.

Conspiracy Theory -- lunar mining occurs today, both but privately owned companies and the US government.

In the News ...

Strip Mine the Moon to Fuel Space Exploration   Discovery - July 14, 2011

With the approaching end of NASA's space shuttle program, news media reports have expressed a lot of concern -- if not downright angst -- about our future in space. Private industry is being encouraged to take over transportation to low-Earth orbit (LEO) -- where the International Space Station is. Now, the chairman of a Texas energy company says it is time for private industry to take bold steps deeper into the solar system to permanently make us a space-faring species.

The first step is to strip mine the moon for invaluable resources. This might send some space environmentalists into conniptions, as it did in 2009 when NASA crashed the a rocket booster into the moon to prospect for water. But the moon is a logical place to extract resources. "Discovering rich concentrations of hydrogen on the moon would open up a universe of possibilities -- literally," wrote William Stone, an aerospace engineer who is chairman of Shackleton Energy Co. in Del Valle, Texas, in the June 2009 IEEE Spectrum magazine. "For the first time, access to space would be truly economical. At last, people would be able to begin new ventures, including space tourism, space-debris cleanup, satellite refueling, and interplanetary voyages."

Rocket fuels and consumables now cost an average of $20,000 per pound to lift off Earth; we are prisoners at the bottom of this very deep gravitational well. Stone and other experts have realized that resources could instead be carried off the moon much more cheaply. Transporting material from the moon requires just 1/14th to 1/20th of the fuel needed to loft material up from Earth's surface.

Assuming there are significant reserves of ice at the perpetually dark lunar poles, Stone envisions investing $20 billion over a decade to establish a network of "refueling service stations" in LEO and on the moon to process and provide fuel and other consumables to space-bound missions.

The consequences, says Stone, is that we could build entirely new classes of space vehicles. They would be designed operate only at and beyond LEO. The large expense of NASA's space shuttle was in designing a super-vehicle that withstood the effects of high-speed atmospheric drag, pressure, and intense vibration on payloads, and thermal heating to back and forth into space. This was not accomplished without catastrophic failures and loss of crew. But a vehicle that is designed to operate only in space can be much simpler. This vision is reminiscent of the space transportation infrastructure envisioned in the 1968 sci-fi classic “2001 A Space Odyssey,” where lunar shuttles ferry passengers between Earth orbit and lunar bases.

Stone’s plan is to establish a lunar fuel-processing plant that would melt the ice and purify the water. Human-tended robotic machinery that would be built to withstand the perpetual darkness inside ice-rich craters at temperatures of minus 270 degrees Fahrenheit. The water would be electrolyze into hydrogen and oxygen. One byproduct would be hydrogen peroxide for rocket fuel.

The most radical part of Stone’s plan is to save $1 billion by sending the first human team with only enough fuel to land and establish the base using lightweight inflatable structures. The success and survival of the team would depend on their skill at manufacturing fuel in situ for the trip home! Nations would never undertake such risky business, but the idea is embedded in the pioneering American settlement of the western frontier. To save more fuel, the water-laden lunar mining cargo ships would return to Earth and use the drag of Earth’s atmosphere to aerobrake to settle down into low Earth-orbit.


Mining the Moon, the Gateway to Mars - November 2004
Any high hopes of sustaining expeditions on the Moon, Mars or beyond will depend on getting "down and dirty" on those worlds -- in the form of using on-the-spot resources. In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), the using of native materials and energy sources collected and processed to support human and robotic exploration, would be crucial to the success of manned space missions as ISRU-derived materials would replace those that otherwise would have to be hauled from Earth.