Space Commerce

US Geological Survey Prospects the Future of Harvesting the Moon’s Resources

By Leonard David
June 20, 2023
Filed under , , ,
US Geological Survey Prospects the Future of Harvesting the Moon’s Resources
Illumination map of the south polar region of the Moon. Areas in black receive no sunlight, and areas in warmer colors are illuminated a greater fraction of the time.
Image credit: Base image mosaic from NASA, Arizona State University, and Applied Coherent Technology Corp.

Mining the Moon is near at hand, and what better group to assess what’s ripe for the picking on that desolate, cratered world than the US Geological Survey? The name says it all. When it comes to economic extraction and sustainable management of the Moon’s resources, the USGS has turned its attention skyward to understand the nature, quantity, and quality of available lunar resources. In fact, an assessment of lunar resource exploration put out by the organization last month builds on USGS methodology long in use to appraise resources right here on Earth.

As a government group, the USGS falls under the Department of the Interior. But in this instance, maybe it’s better tagged as an arm of the “Department of the Exterior” for deep space decision-making.

The key thing that USGS is doing is to provide reliable information so governmental and private organizations can make informed decisions concerning the use of the Moon, with the ultimate goal of assembling something like a “prospectivity map,” Laszlo Kestay, a planetary volcanologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona told SpaceRef.

Not science fiction

SpaceRef caught up with Kestay (surname also known as Keszthelyi) after he spoke at the 23rd meeting of the Space Resources Roundtable, held in Golden, Colorado on June 6 through 9 at the Colorado School of Mines.

The USGS is proposing a general methodology for quantitative lunar resources assessments, Kestay said, taking a hard look at energy, mineral, and water resources on the Moon, and then classifying them with respect to their certainty and recoverability.

“There really are resources out there. This isn’t science fiction,” Kestay told SpaceRef.

Celestial gold rush?

Given the legacy of USGS, established in 1879, is there a tinge of a celestial gold rush in the making? Of space suited prospectors swinging picks and feverishly panning their way to fortune and fame?

“There’s the phrase that history doesn’t repeat, but it echoes or rhymes,” said Kestay. “There are definitely similarities. There was a lot of risk for the people looking for gold. A lot of them didn’t make it. Very few made money, lost their life savings, and some of them even died.”

“Hopefully we can avoid the dying part. But recently, we are seeing our robotic explorers not making it there.”

Kestay pointed out that during the gold rush, the people that made money are those that sold food, supplies, as well as pans for prospectors.

Methods and expertise

“The key thing we have been doing the last few years,” Kestay added, “is to make sure we have the methods and the expertise that we have gained here on Earth, applying those to the Moon.”

Kestay said he would argue that the lunar regolith — the topside covering of dust, busted-up rocks, and other related materials — is one big deposit that has already been sampled and assayed. “We’ve been there and brought back parts of the regolith. We understand how it formed and how it gets modified.”

As underscored in the new USGS report, there are different technologies to convert this material into useful commodities, such as landing pads and oxygen, and the equipment needed to do so will likely be available for industrial-scale application within the next 30 years.

Cold trap clueless

On the other hand, there are key unanswered questions about when and how the water ice thought to exist in the polar regions of the Moon formed, said Kestay. That ice — ideal for processing into oxygen and rocket fuel — is believed to be sequestered in “cold traps,” which are permanently shadowed regions of the Moon. In fact, NASA’s Artemis 3 Moon crew is targeting a lunar south pole touchdown, with the goal of establishing base camps there.

But call it cold trap clueless; little is known about the form, quantity, quality, and distribution of lunar ice. And as a result, it’s harder to plan a way to extract it.

“We don’t have the basics to start designing a way to dig it out of the ground because we don’t know how it got there,” Kestay emphasized. “We’re confident there’s ice, but how much, how deep, how is it mixed, what are the contaminants in the ice…none of those are things we can answer right now,” he told SpaceRef.

There’s a need for new “ground truth” data, Kestay said. Until then, lunar ice will remain a highly speculative resource that may be both limited and non-renewable.

In December 1972, US Geological Survey geologist and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison (Jack) Schmitt stands next to the US flag with the Earth in the background. Image credit: NASA/Gene Cernan

VIPER investigation

Slated for launch in late 2024, NASA’s instrument-loaded, golf cart-sized Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER for short, is being readied for an investigative trek at the south pole of the Moon. Kestay is on the VIPER team and anxious to have new data in hand.

“VIPER will return really useful information,” Kestay said. “It may turn out we don’t find much ice there, but even that would be incredibly informative. It would help us understand where ice isn’t when we thought it should be there, and help us understand where it is.”

Another challenge will be finding ways to power missions that investigate the frozen depths of lunar cold traps. Fortunately, solar energy is abundant along some of the high ridges near the lunar poles, and the technology to exploit it in creative ways is mature.

There is hope that that future exploration of super-cold, permanently shadowed, polar regions can take advantage of solar arrays that gather and generate power from nearby persistently illuminated ridges.

“We know where to find the sunlight. There isn’t a whole lot of analysis to do,” Kestay said. Solar energy can be gauged as a measured, technically recoverable lunar resource, he said — an unlimited resource that’s constantly being replenished.

Helium-3 mining – too early to tell

Another lunar energy resource that’s been eyed over the years is the heavy isotope of helium, Helium-3. Found in small quantities in the solar wind, it is entrenched into the lunar regolith thanks to 4 billion years of bombardment by the Sun. And, like water ice, experts suspect that Helium-3, and other solar wind volatiles are possibly preferentially retained in colder regions of the Moon, according to the USGS report.

It has been postulated that Moon-mined Helium-3 could fuel future fusion reactors back here on an energy-starved Earth. However, as noted in the USGS lunar resource report, “there is little urgency in completing a formal assessment” of Helium-3 as a lunar resource because fusion reactors are in the research stage, and it is unclear if ones that use helium-3 will be producing power on an industrial scale in the next three decades. For now, lunar Helium-3 exploitation can be classified as an “inferred unrecoverable resource,” the report explains.

More number crunching

As for rare-earth elements, widely used in electrical and electronic components, lasers, magnetic materials, and industrial processes, there are areas on the Moon where concentrations are higher than other areas, Kestay said. Nevertheless, the idea of hauling them back to Earth may be a nonstarter.

“We have to do some more number crunching. But it doesn’t look promising from a quick look,” Kestay advised.

Moving forward, opening up the Moon for detailed exploration and potential resource extraction will refine governmental and private company considerations for taking advantage of the resources available on Earth’s celestial partner.

In doing so, revelations about the aged Moon will undoubtedly surface.

“That’s just part of exploration,” Kestay concluded. “You always get surprised.”

Leonard David

Leonard is author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race, Mars – Our Future on the Red Planet, and co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin of Mission to Mars – My Vision for Space Exploration - all published by the National Geographic Society.