Lunar gold rush: Uncovering the Moon's hidden treasures

Spacefaring nations are racing to its surface to secure untapped mineral wealth

The first full moon of 2024 viewed from La Chorrera, Panama, on January 26. EPA
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In the vast, silent expanse of the cosmos, the Moon casts a glow of untapped potential, heralding the dawn of an extraordinary gold rush.

More than just the Earth’s satellite, it’s a treasure trove of rare resources, including the potentially game-changing helium-3, a key to future fusion energy.

Underneath its cratered surface, the Moon harbours rare earth elements and water ice, critical for sustainable space exploration.

This journey by spacefaring nations and the private sector is more than just exploration – it’s a competitive race to unlock the Moon’s secrets.

Dr Dimitra Atri, an astrophysicist at New York University Abu Dhabi, said mining on the Moon’s surface offered the potential for securing resources crucial to the advancement of technology.

“The Moon could potentially provide access to rare earth elements, indispensable for the production of smartphones and medical equipment, as well as titanium for durable alloys used in aerospace and medical applications,” he said.

“The presence of precious metals like gold and platinum on the lunar surface could open new avenues for industrial applications. One of the most exciting possibilities is the extraction of helium-3, an exceptionally rare isotope on Earth, which holds promise as a clean and efficient fuel for nuclear power plants.”

But it could be a while before space agencies gain access to the Moon's untapped wealth, as the technology and legalities needed for lunar mining are still being developed.

US space agency Nasa has plans to explore lunar resources under its Artemis programme, which aims to return humans to the surface of the Moon. It hopes to eventually send astronauts to Mars from there by using the lunar resources.

China has been actively exploring the Moon with its Chang'e missions, especially Chang'e-5 which returned lunar samples to Earth.

The sample-return mission was a crucial step forward for China in understanding lunar resources and the potential for mining.

The country also announced plans for an international lunar research station, involving robotic vehicles that would explore the Moon's surface.

China and the US are focusing on the lunar south pole, which is known for its potential water ice deposits and continuous sunlight in certain areas.

This region is considered strategically valuable for setting up a long-term human presence and for accessing lunar resources.

Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti, a space scientist at the University of Michigan, said the Moon was a potential launch pad for sustainable space operations because it contained water that could be used for rocket fuel.

“The number one resource that gets Nasa to return to the Moon is water in the form of ice,” he said.

“This is partly why instead of going back to the same place Apollo did many decades ago, Nasa is now looking at the lunar poles where ice is abundantly found. The significance of water ice is that it can support life and enable sustainable space operation [rocket fuel].”

Gordon Osinski, a planetary geologist at Western University in Canada, also said that water will be the “most important” resource on the Moon. Astronauts would use it to drink, grow plants, extract oxygen to breathe and use the oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel, he said.

The Moon's lower gravity – one sixth that of Earth – would mean rockets could launch while consuming less energy than on Earth.

“Because water is so heavy, every kilogram less we need to bring from Earth to the Moon reduces costs and will make space exploration more sustainable,” he said. “Because of the Moon’s lower gravity it takes substantially less fuel to launch the same mass as it does from Earth. This makes launches, therefore, cheaper.

“If we can build up infrastructure on the Moon, perhaps start manufacturing some space hardware, and extract resources such as water to use in situ, then the Moon would be an ideal location to launch missions into deep space.”

Updated: February 02, 2024, 6:00 PM