ESA Planning To Mine The Moon

Last week, the European Space Agency (ESA) has announced the signing of a one-year contract with ArianeGroup, a European aerospace consortium. The intention is part of a bid to look at the feasibility of mining on the surface in the search for natural resources and to extract lunar soil, known as regolith. While the Moon may look like a barren wasteland, its dust-like soil contains oxygen and water, and many space agencies believe that mining there would be the first step towards setting up permanent colonies or bases. If the feasibility study concludes that it is possible to carry out the mining, the ESA is eyeing up a 2025 start date for the mission to begin. ArianeGroup has made it clear that the mission does not involve sending humans to the Moon, focusing on robotic equipment. ArianeGroup CEO, André-Hubert Roussel described the signing of the contract as an important milestone: “In this year, marking the fiftieth anniversary of Man’s first steps on the Moon, ArianeGroup will thus support all current and future European projects, in line with its mission to guarantee independent, sovereign access to space for Europe.” Mining the Moon would be hugely beneficial to future deep space exploration missions, with the lunar body being used like a refuelling station for longer haul missions. The resources in regolith could then be used to create life-support and fuel systems, and essential part of any future space voyages. ArianeGroup will be working with a German start-up called PTScientists, which will design and build the lunar lander, along with Belgian firm Space Applications Services, which will provide the communication infrastructure and ground control facilities. As well as the valuable regolith, the Moon is also rich in helium-3 isotopes. The ESA claims that these isotopes could be used in the production of safer nuclear energy in fusion reactors. Helium-3 isotopes are not radioactive and do not produce dangerous waste products and they could also be used for fuelling spacecraft in the future. Director of Human and Robotic Exploration at ESA, Dr David Parker said: “The use of space resources could be a key to sustainable lunar exploration and this study is part of ESA’s comprehensive plan to make Europe a partner in global exploration in the next decade – a plan we will put to our Ministers for decision later this year at the Space19+ Conference.” There is significant debate amongst experts as to whether or not Moon mining is economically feasible. According to professor of planetary science and astrobiology at Birkbeck College, London, Ian Crawford, it is highly unlikely. Professor Crawford believes that transporting the ore from the Moon back to Earth would be economically untenable and that it would cost more to mine the Moon than to construct renewable energy facilities to power the planet. He added “It doesn’t make sense, the whole helium-3 argument. Strip-mining the lunar surface over hundreds of square kilometres would produce lots of helium-3, but the substance is a limited resource”, explained Crawford. “Once you mine it it’s gone.” He did concede, however, that it may be a different story when mining for other materials, such as uranium and thorium, as well as those we may not yet be aware of. “It’s entirely possible that when we really explore the moon properly we will find higher concentrations of some of these materials … materials that are not resolvable by orbital remote sensing,” he added.

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