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In a new article for Foreign Policy, John Hickman ponders what the political ramifications might be if China were to declare sovereignty over a swath of territory on the moon, triggering a lunar land grab. But what about the economics of this extraterrestrial Great Game? Maintaining a permanent manned presence on the moon is an awfully pricey undertaking just to make a political statement. Is there any way to make some money from mining the moon's riches?
Possibly, but it's a long-term investment. The biggest cheese on the moon is probably helium-3, an isotope that's abundant in the moon's regolith, but rare and getting rarer here on Earth. Helium-3 is currently used mostly for scientific research, but some see it as a future source for non-radioactive fusion power. Unfortunately, the United States and Soviet Union exhausted much of the world's supply during Cold War-era nuclear tests. Several private companies, including Silicon Valley's Moon Express, are exploring the development of helium-3 mining on the moon and governments including India and Russia have discussed the possibility. (It's also the basis of the plot for the 2009 movie Moon.)
It's hard not to be enticed by the numbers. Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin, estimated when contacted by Foreign Policy that given the potential energy of a ton of helium-3 (the equivalent of about 50 million barrels of crude oil) and the estimated amount of recoverable helium-3 (around 75,000 tons, or 15 percent of the total amount on the moon) we could be looking at around $375 trillion worth of the stuff.
But before you grab your pickaxe and space suit, it's important to keep a few things in mind. First, helium-3 fusion reactors haven't been invented yet, so these numbers are theoretical at best. Former Apollo astronaut and ex-senator Harrison Schmitt, one of the world's most enthusiastic proponents of lunar mining, believes that developing these reactors will cost around $5 billion. Fusion projects have been plagued by delays and cost overruns in the past.
Then, of course, there are the not-insignificant costs (even for the Richard Bransons of the world) of getting to the moon and setting up shop there. Schmitt believes it would cost around $2.5 billion to set up a lunar base for mining, but this seems highly optimistic. A 2009 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that just a four-person research station on the lunar surface would cost $35 billion to build and $7.35 billion per year to maintain. Scale that up to a fully functioning operation using low-gravity mining technologies that haven't been developed yet including launch vehicles to return the material to Earth, plus the fact that as much as 150 tons of lunar regolith may have to be excavated for just a gram of helium-3, and that pretty quickly adds up.
But helium-3 isn't the only valuable commodity on the lunar surface. Satellite images have shown heavy deposits of titanium, with some rocks containing as much as 10 times the amount of the precious metal as similar rocks on Earth as part of a compound called ilemite, which also includes iron and oxygen.
Then there's KREEP, a nickname for rocks containing potassium (chemical symbol: K) rare earth elements, and phosphorus. Rare earth elements are increasingly used in both consumer electronics and green-energy technology, but China has largely cornered the market here on Earth. Samples brought back by the Apollo 12 astronauts had extremely high levels of this compound, but subsequent studies have indicated that their landing site may have been a fluke, and other parts of the moon are less KREEPy. Like the Earth, different parts of the moon are richer in different minerals, so if lunar mining ever becomes a reality, expect some conflict over the most promising sites.
So is there anything of value for future prospectors? Of course. But it will be many years and many billions of dollars before we can really see if there's gold -- so to speak -- in them thar moon.