Mining the Moon and Beyond


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As we use up Earth’s supply of minerals that are crucial to our lives, the race is on to extract them from space...
(C) Scholastic Science World 2012

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Mining the Moon and Beyond

  1. 1. EARTH: MINERALS MINING THE MOON AND BEYOND As we use up Earth’s supply of minerals that are crucial to our lives, the race is on to P extract them from space recious metals like gold and platinum are used in everything from cell phones and computers to jewelry. These elements are valuable partly because they’re hard to find on Earth. They’re often buried deep beneath Earth’s surface, and digging DESTINATION: THE MOON them out can be expensive, dangerous, and Moon Express, a California-based destructive to the environment. company, wants to hunt for metals like In fact, we’ve already used up most of platinum and palladium on the lunar surface. the precious metals that were easy to find. They also want to harvest water, which scien- ILLUSTRATIONS BY GREG MAXON Some companies are setting their sights on tists have recently discovered is much more WATCH hard-to-reach places like the seafloor to find common on the moon than once thought. A VIDEO these elements. But with mineral supplies The moon is continually bombarded by becoming harder to reach on Earth, other asteroids—that’s why it’s pockmarked with entrepreneurs are making plans to leave our craters. The mineral-rich rocks usually burn planet to find more. up in Earth’s atmosphere. But the moon has14 NOVEMBER 19, 2012
  2. 2. SPECIAL DELIVERY: A lunar lander designed to be carried on a rocket will transport material between Earth and the moon. It is scheduled to make its first touchdown in 2014. LUNAR RICHES: The moon’s exact makeup is unknown, but scientists hope to one day extract resources like valuable metals, water, hydrogen, and helium-3 from it. Helium-3 is a rare form of helium, the gas that fills party balloons. It could provide us with an entirely new power source. NOT-SO-BURIED TREASURE: Because the moon has minerals and water molecules near its surface, extracting these resources wouldn’t leave a big hole like some mining operations on Earth. MINING THE MOON Any lunar mining in the near futureno atmosphere. Asteroids crash-land, depos- The company is working with NASA to will probablyiting their minerals on the moon’s surface. develop a lunar lander, which they hope will be carried out by robots. But Moon Express wants to use the moon’s visit the moon in 2014. But actual mining eventually,resources to aid space missions. Astronauts operations wouldn’t begin until many years astronauts on their way toneed water to drink and hydrogen from later. First, says Kohlenberg, “we need to distant regions ofwater could be used as fuel. If a base on the figure out where this stuff is on the moon space could stop on the moon tomoon could be set up and water and other and the best way we can get to it.” gather water andresources collected, space missions could mineral resources.easily be launched from there, says Moon DESTINATION: ASTEROIDSExpress spokesman Brad Kohlenberg (see Planetary Resources, a company based inMining the Moon, above). Washington State, also wants to go hunting SCIENCE WORLD 15
  3. 3. for minerals in space. Earlier this year, it Planetary Resources estimates that a announced plans to send spacecraft right to typical asteroid could contain precious asteroids to extract precious metals. metals worth $100 billion. In the next two Most asteroids in our solar system are years, the company intends to launch a found in the asteroid belt between Mars space telescope to spot nearby asteroids and Jupiter. It would take a long time to and analyze their mineral content from a reach these distant space rocks. But a few distance. Once the company identifies the thousand asteroids have orbits that bring most promising space rocks, it wants to them closer to Earth. Scientists know about send robotic spacecraft to extract minerals the composition of these rocky objects from and bring them back to Earth (see Mining fragments that have fallen to Earth as mete- an Asteroid, below). orites, explains Alfred McEwen, a planetary The company claims asteroids could scientist at the University of Arizona. provide a practically infinite supply ofMINING AN Some asteroids are rich in platinum and metals that are scarce on Earth. But spaceASTEROID palladium, another element that’s used in travel is expensive, and McEwen wonders if electronics. On Earth, these elements sepa- the asteroids’ potential bounty is worth theAccordingto PlanetaryResources, a rated from lighter elements like calcium and cost of sending spacecraft all the way there silicon as the planet formed and then they and back.companyplanning to sendmining missions sank toward Earth’s center. That’s why the “I’m skeptical that this will ever be a highest concentrations are deep under- great way to bring materials back to Earth,”to nearbyasteroids, justone of the rocky ground. But on asteroids, says McEwen, he says. “But using them beyond Earthbodies couldcontain more these metals are on the surface. is a different scenario.” He agrees withplatinum andpalladium thanhave ever beendug up on Earth. EARTH-BOUND: 3 Self-powered capsules could carry mineral cargo back to Earth. ASTEROID 1 HUNTER: A telescope orbiting Earth could locate and analyze asteroids to identify the best ones for mining. MINING SCRAPING ILLUSTRATIONS BY GREG MAXON SPACECRAFT 2THE SURFACE: Unlike on Earth, asteroids’ precious metals aren’t hidden underground. Robots could collect them from the surface.16 NOVEMBER 19, 2012
  4. 4. Kohlenberg of Moon Expressthat we’d be best served bysetting up remote bases inspace and using the resourceson the spot to fuel spaceexploration.DESTINATION: THE SEA Space mining is still a long UP, UP, AND 2 AWAY: Away off. In the meantime, “slurry” of rock andthe mining industry has water is pumped 1.6 kilometers (1 mile)found another new source to the ocean surface. 3 RECYCLINGof precious metals right here WASTE: Processingon Earth: the bottom of the machines on theocean. A Canadian company ship extract thecalled Nautilus Minerals is minerals and then send excessplanning the world’s first water back todeep-sea mining project to the seafloor.collect copper and gold onthe seafloor. Nautilus plans to mine inthe western Pacific Ocean ata subduction zone—an areawhere a continental plate slipsunder the plate next to it. Thismovement creates volcanicactivity. Hydrothermalvents in the seafloor spewout superheated water fullof dissolved minerals from 1 ROCK-PICKING ROBOT: A remote-controlleddeep within Earth. When the mining machine collects pieceshot water hits cold seawater, of rock from the seafloor.those minerals separate out toform rich rock deposits. MINING The company says it won’t THEharm the deep-sea environ-ment, but some urge caution. Hydrothermal shore of Papua New Guinea, next year. OCEAN In Nautilusvents are teeming with life, says marine The company will use remote-controlled Minerals’ deep-biologist Greg Rouse at the University of underwater machines, including a large sea miningCalifornia, San Diego. Giant tubeworms, robotic arm, to break off chunks of rock operation, underwateras well as rare shrimp and crabs, adapted (see Mining the Ocean, above). Nautilus vehicles wouldto withstand boiling temperatures live hopes to haul up about 1.3 billion kilograms send mineral- rich rock toaround vents. Scientists know (2.9 billion pounds) of gold and a productionlittle about these species, so WHAT DO copper a year from the site. ship at the surface. Bargesit’s impossible to ensure that YOU THINK? While mining the seafloor would ferry themining won’t harm them, says or objects in space might seem minerals from If companies don’t the ship toRouse. “[Mining] might damage find new sources like far-flung ideas, they’re shore.the vents, and then the animals of rare minerals, rapidly becoming a reality. In awould likely die,” he says. what problems few years, your cell phone or Nautilus plans to begin its might that cause computer could have a little bitmining operation about 30 for people? of moon rock inside. 9kilometers (19 miles) off the —Mara Grunbaum SCIENCE WORLD 17