Between 1969 and 1972, a frenzied space race began when NASA first put 12 astronauts on the Moon. They studied the lunar surface, leaving experiments for us to increase our understanding, and returning Moon rocks so we might learn about lunar history.
The space race was not cheap. The Planetary Society estimated the overall cost of the Apollo program in today’s money was $280 billion. This is larger than the GDP of 78% of the world’s countries.
You might wonder why there is so much focus on humans potentially settling on the Moon or Mars when radiation currently seems to be a significant barrier to permanently living on or near the Moon.
Now nations, together with commercial companies, are in another space race, with a sizable fleet of spacecraft to the Moon in the coming years. So, what’s different this time, and why are they doing it?
The Moon’s ownership has become a bit of an ambiguous legal area. The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty is the primary legal basis that countries have to work from, explains professor Crawford, a space resources expert at Birkbeck University. The treaty agreed by just under 100 states made it clear that no country can lay claim to the Moon. However, it left ambiguities in the law regarding how the Moon ownership should be regulated for private businesses that have invested and prospected it.
Crawford believes the situation is analogous to fishing in foreign waters. Nobody owns the sea outside territorial seas, but if you buy a boat and catch some fish, international law gives you ownership of those fish. “Your ownership rights are derived from that you invested your time and money to extract a common resource,” Crawford explains. “If a commercial operator mined lunar resources… they would be entitled to sell or trade-in such materials,”
Taxpayers are no longer responsible for the entire expense
Taxpayers who would rather see money spent on schools and hospitals are becoming increasingly hesitant to approve spending on outer space missions to the Moon. Space agencies are now more involved in negotiating with the private sector.
The number of commercial space enterprises has increased exponentially in the previous decade, led by well-known names like Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SpaceX has significantly reduced the cost of traveling to space by building reusable rockets. NASA currently utilizes SpaceX technology to ferry passengers and supplies to the International Space Station, and the companies are collaborating on launching Moon landers.
With companies such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and Blue Origin Space reviewing different income streams from space, space tourism has become a new source of revenue potential. Reusable rockets might be converted into celestial cruise ships. The colossal money space tourists would have to pay can be used to fund more lunar exploration.
Valuable resources on the Moon
Missions to the Moon have proved that it has valuable materials necessary for establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon and launching a new space mining economy. Corporations are beginning to notice the profit potential and are investing in exploratory missions to learn more about what’s out there and whether it’s feasible to extract it.
Water on the Moon
The lunar south pole is one area that will see a lot of activity because it has water, a critical resource for keeping humans alive. Water is so important that the Moon may become the Solar System’s refueling station. It may become easier for spacecraft to get water off the lunar surface, where gravity is one-sixth of Earth, than trying to bring water from Earth. Getting water directly from the Moon will help with NASA’s ambitions to farm in space.
Mining metal from the Moon could be more environmentally friendly
Moving away from fossil fuels permanently will necessitate significant changes in how people construct infrastructure. Due to their scarcity, massive amounts of metals known as ‘rare earths’ will be required to significantly increase the number of electric automobiles, solar panels, and wind farms.
The Apollo astronauts’ return of Moon rocks to Earth revealed that the Moon has some of these resources. Crawford speculates that they may be difficult to extract, in which case the financial burden of returning them from the Moon would make the project untenable. He can foresee a scenario in which we might still do it. “It could be economically bad, but it’s better for the environment,.”
There may come a moment when the practice of mining Earth for metals becomes too filthy and destructive to the ecosystem on the planet. Extraction of rare earth metals like neodymium, which is used in magnets, pollutes the environment significantly. The Moon and asteroids might be a more expensive but environmentally friendly choice, resulting in a multitrillion-dollar industry.
The Earth is experiencing an energy shortage. People want to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Still, in the meantime, COVID-induced supply chain disruptions and geopolitical tensions like those in Ukraine are causing increased oil and gas costs.
Nuclear fusion has long been touted as a possible solution to the world’s energy problems. The idea is to mimic how the Sun generates energy by converting hydrogen to helium. There are several options for doing so. Combining a rare type of hydrogen (deuterium) with an even rarer kind of helium is one method (helium-3). The end outcome is helium-4 (the more common form), protons, and energy.
Deuterium can be extracted from seawater, but helium-3 is so scarce on Earth that it costs $1.4 million per kilogram. The solar wind battered the lunar surface, which deposits helium-3 because of the lack of a magnetic field or atmosphere to protect it. The surface material of some portions of the Moon, such as the Sea of Tranquillity and the Ocean of Storms, has helium-3 concentrations of 20 parts per billion.
Although supply and demand dictate that bringing helium-3 back from the Moon will drastically lower prices, there is now roughly $1.5 quadrillion worth of helium-3 on the Moon.
Timeline of future Moon exploration
Colin Stuart from sciencefocus.com explains the predicted timeline of Moon exploration. The key events are as below.
NASA will launch the CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment). It’s a technology demonstration mission designed to test and confirm the stability of Gateway’s projected orbit.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos plans to launch its Luna 25 lander to the Moon in July 2022. It will land in the Boguslawsky crater near the lunar south pole.
South Korea’s Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter will study and map lunar resources, including ice and helium-3, in August 2022.
In October 2022, the private Japanese space corporation ‘ispace’ will launch the Hakuto-R Mission 1 lunar lander. For the United Arab Emirates, it will also carry a lunar rover.
With the deployment of Intuitive Machines 1 and 2 in late 2022, efforts to commercialize the Moon will ramp up (IM-1 and IM-2). These landers, developed in partnership with NASA, are intended to carry commercial payloads to the lunar surface.
The significant finances of Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa will fund the first Moon tourists who will fly on a SpaceX Starship around the Moon and return to Earth.
The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) will launch its first lunar surface mission, Smart Lander for Investigating the Moon, before March 2023. (SLIM).
The NASA Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) will begin searching for water ice near the lunar south pole in November 2023.
Middle to late 2023, Firefly Aerospace’s Blue Ghost and Masten Space Systems’ XL-1 landers will deliver experiments sponsored by NASA and commercial payloads to the Moon.
In late 2023 Nanosatellites will be sent by the Australia Lunar Exploration Mission to assist NASA’s Artemis program. The Dutch will also launch Laika to the lunar south pole to test radiation levels ahead of future human bases there.
The Chinese will settle on the lunar south pole in 2024 and send out a rover and a flying probe to search for lunar riches. They’ll work along with the Russian Luna 26 orbiter, which will arrive simultaneously. Chang’e 6 has the capability of returning samples from the lunar surface.
‘ispace’ plans to launch a lander and a rover to the Moon in 2024. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ space company, aims to land on the Moon, and NASA will begin sending essential components for the Gateway spacecraft into lunar orbit.
For the first time since 1972, NASA will return humans to the Moon in 2026, including the first female astronaut and a minority ethnic astronaut.
NASA intends to send astronauts back to the Moon on Artemis III, most likely in 2026, and they will land in the south polar zone. Upcoming missions will continue this quest, examining the region from orbit and exploring the surface with rovers. The Chinese are considering even a tiny flying probe.
At the same time, NASA is a member of a multinational team intending to develop the Lunar Gateway, an orbiting base around the Moon. It will serve as a staging site for Artemis astronauts heading down to the lunar surface if it is completed on time. It would, however, be a location from which to control lunar rovers in real-time, avoiding the 1.3-second delay caused by signal travel time from Earth.
In 2027, China’s Chang’e 8 mission could investigate how to use 3D printing to convert lunar resources in the Moon’s south pole into valuable materials.
The 2030 Gateway, a lunar-based replica of the International Space Station, will be completed. Astronauts will begin to live on the Moon for months at a time.
Astronauts begin to live on the lunar surface for extended periods near the Moon’s south pole, similar to what we do now with Antarctic research stations. The majority of the money will come from paying Moon tourists.
If the lunar industry starts to thrive, people will relocate to the Moon to work in the mining industry. Helium-3 is returned to the Earth to keep the planet’s fusion reactors running.
With Earth’s climate changing, more of our heavy industry will be relocated to the lunar surface, and the Moon will serve as a launchpad for frequent crewed flights to Mars.
The Moon offers many opportunities, ‘Aim for the Moon, miss, and you may hit a star’ may no longer be a euphemism to describe setting high goals and ambitions.
Feature image credit: NASA