Unlocking the moon for mineral exploration is closer to science fact than science fiction.
As local and international researchers gather in Sydney for Australia's first off-Earth mining conference this week, it wasn't just the usual logistical and economic challenges that were discussed. The progress being made was also outlined as evidence that things are changing.
Mining the moon
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Mining the moon
Several rare metals used in human technology are found in large supply on the moon. One Sydney researcher has an idea for how the moon could be mined. Vision courtesy: University of New South Wales.
Senior project engineer Gordon Roesler, from the University of New South Wales' Australian centre for space engineering research, said advances in robotics meant investors, entrepreneurs and research institutions were taking off-Earth mining much more seriously.
"Just look what has been achieved in the last 20 years," he said. "In the last year alone there has been two companies formed, one in the US and one in the UK, which are backed by millionaires whose goals are to go and mine asteroids."
NASA's Curiosity mission, which landed a 899-kilogram rover on Mars last August, and Japan's sampling of an asteroid 300 million kilometres away using robotics in 2010 are other standout examples.
A geologist, Mars Society Australia president Jonathan Clarke said Mars and the moon were the next frontier, with water likely the first target.
"For both the moon and Mars, we are going to be looking an mining water because water can be used as a propellant for space craft, oxygen for breathing and water for washing," he said. "That can totally transform the financial viability of even a small scientific station."
Dr Roesler agreed, describing the ability to turn water into a propellant as effectively turning Mars or the moon into a space petrol station. "So rather than have to launch all our propellants from the Earth which is very expensive, we can stop off at the petrol station," he said. "This makes the whole scenario more appealing."
Mineral mapping by NASA has shown that the moon is geologically diverse, with a range of minerals present including those which are considered "rare Earth minerals". Among them are yttrium, lanthanum and samarium. These are increasingly critical in the making of high-tech products for civilian and military use: be it tablets, missiles or wind turbines.
"These are minerals that we use for all sorts of things but particularly plasma screens and advanced ceramics used in engines, electronics and machinery," Dr Clarke said.
Titanium occurs in some lunar rocks at 100-times the rate as rocks on Earth. The mineral is efficient at retaining solar wind particles such as helium and hydrogen, each vital gasses in the construction of lunar colonies and for exploration.
While there may be concerns that the planets could become cosmic quarries, off-Earth mining could have benefits for our own warming planet.
"This is an avenue that prevents further damage to the Earth," Dr Roesler said. "There is no life on the moon, it's a very harsh environment . . . so there is no ecology to be threatened."
However, the mineral exploration of Mars and the moon, considered international territory with treaties to match, will raise questions as to who has the rights to mine and to use the resources. Australian commercial satellite lawyer Donna Lawler said there is still global debate on the legality of off-Earth mining, with no international agreement on a legal framework.