NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, made an announcement this week which will likely result in future men on the moon being miners. The space agency is accepting contract proposals from private sector space companies to build prospecting robots for the Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown program (CATALYST). CATALYST is considered the first giant step towards mineral mining of the moon.
Bigelow Aerospace owner, Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas real estate mogul, has been urging the Federal Aviation Administration to begin allowing the establishment of private lunar property rights. In 2011, Bigelow’s company and the Dubai firm Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology, owned by Prince Ahmed Al Mansoori, began a collaborative project to establish commercial space flight for the UAE.
Bigelow insists the U.S. government must offer property rights as an incentive for private companies to establish permanent commercial facilities, or investment and the risks to life will not be justifiable. But there are legal obstacles in the way. Space law specialist James Dunstan of the Springfield, Virginia Mobius Legal Group, explained that the international Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bars countries from making territorial claims on the moon. There is a possible loophole in the treaty, in the sense that recognition is not the same as appropriation, a fine point which could pave the way for lunar homesteaders. Possession, being traditionally considered 9/10s of the law, lunar “Sooners” will have a distinct advantage as the space race takes off in pursuit of moon minerals.
Bigelow Aerospace and other private sector space companies, such as SpaceX, owned by SolarCity founder, Elon Musk, are already in business with NASA. SpaceX flights have been supplying the International Space Station for several years. While Bigelow announced last month that his company has an agreement with the space agency to place one of its Expandable Activity Modules on the space station.
NASA experts are aware of the necessity of sending men and women to the moon to work as miners. Though many people object to treating the moon as just another piece of real estate to exploit, Congress has determined there are real issues of national security at stake. It is thought that the moon could become a source for rare earth elements (REEs), such as europium and tantalum. The moon is also thought to be rich in thorium, phosphorus and the fuchsia-colored gemstone spinel, which is composed of magnesium, aluminum and oxygen.
REEs are used in many high tech products, such as wind turbines, solar panels and super-conducting magnets. With China currently blocking export of its REEs to Japan, in this age of technology, the growing need for REEs is an issue of national vulnerability. China’s rapidly developing space program, particularly in the areas of robotic and human lunar exploration, is of great concern with regard to moon mining.
Possibly inspired by one of their nation’s ancient names, Tianchao (the Celestial Empire), the Chinese space program was established in 1992. Since then it has launched 11 manned missions and is currently on track in the creation of a manned space station by 2020. The Congressional Research Service issued a report recently recommending it would be “a prudent investment” to set up both government and private sector stockpiles of particular rare earth elements required for both defense and green energy technologies.
Dale Boucher, of the Canadian company Northern Center for Advanced Technology Inc., has stated that the existence of lunar REEs can only be established through a moon-based exploration program, which would involve obtaining drill cores and other sampling techniques which are standard practices for mineral exploration and development on Earth. Paul Spudis, of Houston’s Lunar and Planetary Institute, believes one of the most important strategic lunar commodities is water. Water is necessary for life support. It can be used as a propellant and to store energy. Spudis advocates that water extracted from the moon can also be used to create a space transportation system.
The dark side of the moon has long been subjected to bombardment by asteroids. Bigelow has suggested to NASA this will make walking around and picking up rocks at asteroid impact locations an easy process for men and women working as miners on the moon.
By Melissa Roddy