Updated: Tuesday, 11th August 2020 @ 9:23am

'Too soon to mine the Moon': Manchester scientist believes Google's space-age plan is premature

'Too soon to mine the Moon': Manchester scientist believes Google's space-age plan is premature

By Ed Owen

The space race may have rocketed back into the headlines last week with news of moon-mining projects, but a Manchester academic believes these lunar ambitions are premature.

Google offered a $20m grand prize to the first privately-funded company to land a robot on the Moon and explore the surface last Friday, reigniting interest in exploiting the celestial body.

However, Moon expert Dr Katherine Joy of the University of Manchester’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences believes that while mining will happen at some point, it won’t be as soon as Google hopes.

“I think that mining will probably happen on the Moon at some point in the next hundred years,” she said.

“As we have learnt a lot about the geology of the Earth from mining operations, I hope that the same is true for future lunar ventures.

“Hopefully we can learn more about the geological history of the Moon and Solar System along the way.”

Much of the Moon consists of materials already found on Earth – the dark surface areas are comprised of basaltic volcanic lava also found in Hawaii – but there are some regions which may be attractive to mining companies.

Dr Joy explained that some regions of the Moon have experienced very cold and stable conditions for a long period of time, which may have trapped materials delivered by comets or on solar winds.

Solar winds have resulted in large amounts of helium-3 becoming bound up in the Moon’s surface soil – an isotope proposed as a possible fuel source for future nuclear fusion.

Another consequence of solar wind is that the icy material on the Moon is now hydrogen-rich, something which could be mined for rocket-fuel used to explore further space.  

Yet, she was quick to point out that mining these materials would be extremely difficult, as much of the resources – such as platinum group metals delivered by asteroids – have yet to be pinpointed.

Initial missions to the Moon to build up a feasible mining operation would involve developing robotic capabilities and this would require lots of time and financial investment to accomplish.   

But Dr Joy was fully confident that we will eventually achieve the goal, leading to both financial and scientific breakthroughs for humanity.

She said: “I think it is in our nature to explore and seek answers to fundamental science questions about how we are here, and the past history of our own planet Earth.

“As it has a very old surface, the Moon holds the key to many of these science questions, and we should go back and explore more to make the most of this unique archive.

“As a lunar scientist, I can’t wait until we have people exploring the Moon again who will be able to help answer fundamental questions about how our Solar System has evolved through time.”

Picture courtesy of JasonBache, with thanks.

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