Why mining the Moon and asteroids is good for science

Space experts from around the world are gathered in London today to plan how to mine the Moon and asteroids for precious resources. Representatives of commercial companies created to exploit other worlds joined scientists from the USA and UK, and the European Space Agency for the meeting organised by the Royal Astronomical Society.

Asteroid mining
An artist’s impression of a spacecraft harvesting an asteroid for its resources. Image credit: Deep Space Industries / Bryan Versteeg

They say that even a small asteroid can contain trillions of dollars worth of material that would not only be used for ambitious space missions in the future, but will be needed for applications on Earth.

One of the companies represented is Shackleton Energy, based in Texas, which plans to get at the billions of tons of water ice found in the permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles. They want to mine it, extract hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel, and set up gas stations in orbit where spacecraft can fill up.

The ice will also provide essential water to sustain colonies of astronauts on the Moon, and allow giant spacecraft and space telescopes to be built in orbit that would be too heavy to launch from Earth due to our planet’s gravitational pull.

Also represented was California-based Deep Space Industries, a company set up to mine asteroids. They are seen as treasure troves of rare metals that are essential for industry on Earth, such as platinum and related metals essential for mobile phones, medical devices and electronic gadgets, and neodymium needed for the powerful magnets in electric cars.

One of the organisers of today’s conference is Professor Ian Crawford, of Birkbeck College London, who sees commercial space mining as essential to help fund science.

He told Skymania: “The next big space telescope, the James Webb, has been so demanding that it has used up much of NASA’s budget. But in the next few decades we’re going to need much bigger, more powerful telescopes. And planetary scientists like me need people on the Moon and Mars, and all this is so expensive that it’s just not affordable.

“So if it going to happen, then space has to start paying for itself, rather than be a drain on taxpayers. Instead, the money for space science will be siphoned off the space economy. There could be a symbiotic relationship between mining asteroids and the moon and space exploration and space science. Unless there is, then we won’t be able to afford the next generation of space science.

DSI-Fuel processor from Bryan Versteeg Studios Inc. on Vimeo.

“Even a small asteroid can be worth many billions if nor trillions of dollars thanks to the materials they contain such as silicon, aluminium, titanium, nickel, iron, platinum-group of elements, as well as the water.”

Professor Crawford believes it is much more environmentally acceptable to exploit asteroids and the Moon for materials, and should not be seen as plundering. He said: “Mining the Moon is different from mining Antarctica or chopping down forests in Poland or the Amazon. That is plundering and a bad thing because we damage an environment on a planet that we share with other living things.

“This is not true of the Moon and it is not true of millions of lumps of rock in the asteroid belt. You can’t really do any damage to those things, in fact it would be preferable ethically for humanity to obtain our resources from these objects then to exploit a planet that is occupied by a living biosphere and which can be damaged by our activities.”

Professor Crawford believes a commercial space industry will support science just as a commercial air industry does now. He said: “When I was an astronomer, I used to have to go observing in Australia a lot and then when I became a planetary scientist I did fieldwork in Iceland, and to get to these places I got on a commercial aeroplane. Now if I had to write a research grant asking to develop a whole aviation infrastructure like an aeroplane and the airport and air traffic control and everything just to enable me to make these astronomical and geological observations, it would have been impossible. But because all I have to put into my research grant application is a commercial air fare it becomes possible. This industry has facilitated scientific activities that would not otherwise happen. And that is the kind of thing that I think it could happen in the future if the space industry takes off.”

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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