Mining the moon: The lunar economy is coming and how!
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Mining the moon: The lunar economy is coming and how!

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This decade is poised to witness unprecedented moon ventures. Although Nasa’s Artemis missions – which will retake humans to our celestial companion – are in the limelight, several other nations are zealously pursuing exploring the moon. Apart from the USA, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, and the United Arab Emirates are readying robotic moon probes, landers and rovers. These...

This decade is poised to witness unprecedented moon ventures. Although Nasa’s Artemis missions – which will retake humans to our celestial companion – are in the limelight, several other nations are zealously pursuing exploring the moon. Apart from the USA, Japan, South Korea, Russia, India, and the United Arab Emirates are readying robotic moon probes, landers and rovers. These missions are at various stages of readiness and will soon take to the skies.

Why is there such a rush? Have you wondered what the moon holds that attracts so many countries to invest heavily in trips to the natural satellite?

The answers lie in unlocking one trillion-dollar lunar economy.

How will people make money on the moon?

In several ways.

According to the international space treaty, no nation or entity can own a celestial body. However, they are free to explore and exploit the resources of space objects.

The lunar economy covers the money made from all activities related to the moon: the production, use and exchange of resources on the moon’s surface, in orbit and on earth.

The commercialisation of space ventures and services opened the floodgates for the lunar economy. As a result, several global private companies are investing heavily in moon missions: from building rockets to launching spacecraft, from making innovative equipment for astronauts to cargo supply facilities, and advancing scientific research on the moon.
As per the US commercial space launch competitiveness Act of 2015, US-based companies venturing to explore the moon would have all the rights to the material they collect from space. Moreover, recent moon missions have shown that our planetary neighbour has a rich repository of valuable minerals which are extremely rare on earth. It is no surprise then that the space-farers are eyeing to exploit these resources.

Artemis
The illustration provided by SpaceX shows the SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program. Photo: Nasa

Not only the miners but other industries are also in the fray. Soon, human settlements will come up on the moon for people to live there for extended periods. The moon will eventually evolve into a hopping board to Mars. Technically, industries like construction and transportation on earth are also viable on the moon. Evidently, these industries are attracted to these futuristic projects.

The science and research industry in space is a continuous endeavour. And researchers are pleased with the numerous missions and look forward to the data from these missions and the samples that will be brought back to earth for analysis. In addition, the lunar market will see several other subsidiary economies mushrooming around these primary activities. For example, entertainment and education activities focused around the moon.
It is no surprise that all eyes are on the moon with booming money-making options in the offing.

The key areas of monetizing the moon

According to a 2021 lunar market assessment report published by ESA (the European space agency), the lunar economy will surpass 142 billion pounds by 2040. The key contributors to these whopping figures are:

The space Transportation sector includes transportation infrastructures and technology, providers or manufacturers of space equipment. These entities will profit from a surge in spatial capabilities and services demand.

The transportation sector encompasses three types of facilities:

• upstream – the designing, developing and testing of orbiters, landers and rovers; launching them from the earth and to the transfer orbit

• midstream – the injection into moon orbit and landing as required; and,

• downstream – monitoring and operating the spacecraft, data transmission and processing

Many private companies have already taken the initiative and demonstrated their capabilities to provide some of these facilities. Nasa reportedly has assigned the task of developing prototypes for human landers for its upcoming Artemis moon missions to11 companies.

Owing to their current technical prowess and heavy investments, companies like Space X, Boeing, and Japan’s ispace are already growing enormously. In addition, several private and government agencies are gearing up for the high-traffic ventures to ferry people, equipment, robots and cargo in the coming years.

Support systems: In the coming two-three decades, habitats will spring up on the moon, and expectedly 1,000 people will live in them. As the moon does not have a life-supporting environment, support equipment for the moon people is paramount.

There is a booming market for space suits and space gear. Rapid design modifications are ongoing to make them lighter and trendier with new-age materials and flexible electronics while enhancing safety.

In addition, there will be a huge demand for robots on the moon which will perform various supporting duties for the moon dwellers.

In-situ resource utilization (ISRU): The future will witness humans and robots working hand in hand on the moon to construct futuristic habitats. Down the line, the habitats will have to be self-sufficient in many aspects. The habitats will be built by using moon soil; however, the technologies required to achieve the tasks must come from the earth.

Therefore, companies are eyeing to supply specialised equipment like extractors, raw material processors, automated equipment, and machinery suitable for the lunar market.
Another potential market is tapping into the water reserves on the moon. Moon has abundant water-ice in its polar regions, which will be converted to liquid water for consumption. In addition, oxygen and hydrogen will be extracted from the water-ice for life support and rocket fuel. Space-farers are investing vast amounts in developing cutting-edge technologies to cater to this requirement.

Mineral wealth: The moon has a rich repository of minerals, so mining moon material is high on the cards. Moon has many metal ores, and about 20 per cent of regolith (moon soil) has silica – useful for electronic components and solar panels. Moon settlers may manufacture components for their use in future, but for now, the reserves will be returned to the earth. Moreover, ongoing missions are unearthing more rare elements from the platinum group on the moon.

Notably, the investors are eyeing helium-3 reserves. helium is a potential candidate for nuclear reactors for energy generation. Solar winds bring helium. However, our atmosphere blocks it, and the earth’s helium reserves are scarce. On the moon, regolith traps the gas as it is devoid of an atmosphere.

Clavius crater
Clavius Crater on the moon. Photo: NASA/USGS

Several countries, including India, have expressed their interest in bringing back helium from the moon for use on earth. Although such a project is currently an ambitious proposition, experts say that mining and transporting the element from the moon will be cheaper than eventually getting it on the ground.

Time will see how these futuristic projects will come to fruition. But the ESA report states that “to create and sustain a full-fledged lunar economy, a robust and continuous collaboration between public and private entities will be crucial. In addition, over time, particularly in the short-run, markets will need to adjust to disruptive innovations, fluid political agendas and other external forces.”

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