The Value of the Moon
By Charles Radley
The Moon weighs 83 times less than the Earth, and by the rocket equation it means it is hundreds of times cheaper to launch material from the Moon than the Earth. There is a lot of talk about using asteroids for raw materials, but it takes years to do a round trip journey to even the closest asteroid, the Moon is a 7 day round trip by comparison.
- Building materials: lunar dust and dirt can be used as feedstock for metal making factories to build large structures in space, hundreds of times cheaper than launching from Earth (Reference: The High Frontier, Human Colonies in Space, by Gerard O’Neill)
- Helium-3 is a very rare and very expensive commodity in great demand on Earth. It is abundant on the moon and can be shipped to Earth very cheaply, market value is currently about one million dollars per ounce [This market is nothing to do with nuclear fusion nor energy]. The National Helium-3 Supply Crisis: No one has built a working nuclear fusion reactor, yet there is much discussion of lunar Helium-3 (3He) isotope as nuclear fuel. Alas, the fusion market simply does not exist – and will not in a predictable timeframe. Unfortunately, the fusion discussion has distracted the community from the large market which already exists for 3He; a market which can be profitably supplied from the Moon more cheaply than from terrestrial sources. Surprisingly, since 2001 a strong new market has rapidly emerged. 3He is in great demand since the 9/11 attacks. New demand has been driven by the US Department of Homeland Security, which needs 3He for neutron detectors at all seaports, airports and borders, to scan for nuclear material. Demand also increased from the medical sector (MRIs), and for natural gas exploration. The US 3He stockpile came from the decay of nuclear warheads; it is dwindling rapidly. In 2008 the White House imposed 3He rationing to eke out remaining reserves and supply fell from 80,000 to 14,000 liters per year. “Projected demand for 3He implies that U.S. production alone cannot meet anticipated worldwide demand.”
- i) xvii Global demand is now 60,000 liters per year, and the price shot up from $100/l in 2008 to $2,000/l in 2009.
- ii) xviii Lunar 3He can derive ~$250 million/year.
- iii) xix xx xxi Reference: The Helium-3 Shortage: Supply, Demand, and Options for Congress Dana A. Shea – Specialist in Science and Technology Policy Daniel Morgan – Specialist in Science and Technology Policy December 22, 2010 Congressional Research Service 7-5700 crs.gov R41419
- Propellant: Another method to greatly reduce the cost of human spaceflight beyond Earth orbit is to make use of lunar rocket propellant. NASA should engage in a public-private partnership to develop these resources to mutual benefit. An immediate market for lunar propellant would be for boosting communications satellite from Earth to final circular geostationary orbit. Currently it is very expensive to launch communications satellites from Earth into Geostationary orbit. Propellants can be cheaply manufactured from lunar material and transported to low Earth orbit, e.g. Oxygen. This would reduce the cost of launch comm-sats eightfold. It would also greatly reduce the cost of missions to Mars and the asteroids. For example, the one-way transport cost of lunar mission from Earth to L1 would be reduced by a factor of approximately two times. One way mission cost to Mars and asteroids would be reduced about four times, and round trip missions by and order of magnitude. These cost reductions assume that the incremental cost of producing and transporting lunar propellants is small. This would be possible using a lunar elevator, by which the incremental cost of transporting payloads from the lunar surface to Earth is essentially zero, assuming the modest capital cost has been retired. There are several sources of propellant on the Moon. First, there is almost certainly water ice at the lunar poles, as indicated by numerous orbiter sensors. This water can easily be converted to rocket propellant by solar electrolysis. Then, a different process option, is by heating lunar regolith to 700 degrees C which releases significant quantities of hydrogen, and some water and CO/CO2. Finally, melting lunar soil will result in some oxygen bubbling out, and further oxygen can easily be extracted by reducing the melt with hydrogen from the previous process. See this link regarding the lunox project: http://www.astronautix.com/craft/lunox.htm
- Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are in increasing demand for electronics products, e.g. cell phones. The price of REEs is rapidly increasing, and supplies are being depleted. REEs are available on the Moon in deposits called “KREEP”. On Earth 96% of all REEs comes from one country, China. The Moon is rich in “Rare Earth Elements” (REEs), as seen in new orbiter sensor data and from the lunar meteorite SaU 169 xxii. Of REEs, 95% of commercial sources come from China xxiii. The USA and allies have hardly any commercially viable REE mines. For years, China has manipulated the REE market xxiv xxv forcing US competitors out of business. REEs are in strong and increasing demand by high technology industry sectors xxvi, e.g. defense and semiconductors. They are known as“Strategic Minerals” because they are vital to national security and the economic health of the United States.
- i) xxii 2012, 15 May, Lin, Y. , et al. , “Very high-K KREEP-rich clasts in the impact melt breccia of the lunar meteorite SaU 169: New constraints on the last residue of the Lunar Magma Ocean”, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Volume 85, p. 19-40.
- ii) xxiii 2012 Lt. Col Estep, E (USRA) “Countering China’s Dominance in the Rare Earth Element Market System” http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA561277 xxiv 2012, April, Els, F. “We Need to Talk about how Rare Earth Prices are Imploding” Mining.com http://www.mining.com/weneed-to-talk-about-how-rare-earth-prices-are-imploding/
- iii) xxv 2010 LCDR Hurst, C.A. (USNR) “China’s ace in the hole: Rare Earth Elements” Joint Force Quarterly, 59(4), 121-126 http://www.ndu.edu/press/lib/images/jfq-59/JFQ59_121-126_Hurst.pdf xxvi 2012 Yang, F. “Situation and Policies of China’s Rare Earth Industry” http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/business/2012-06/20/c_131665123_2.htm
- Platinum Group Metals (PGMs): About 10% of the lunar soil is comprised of pulverized meteorite fragments, much of it metallic iron containing large concentrations of PGMs. Deposits of PGMs on Earth are running out and the prices are increasing. It would be much faster to mine PGMs from the Moon than from asteroids, for a slightly higher cost. It has been known for some time that there is abundant platinum present on the surface of the Moon and asteroids. On the Moon, platinum is ubiquitous, and contained in tiny pulverized meteoric fragments and impact glasses. These native metal particles are thoroughly mixed into the fine grained dusty lunar topsoil, known as regolith, a layer several meters thick. The composition of these native metal particles is similar to that of high grade platinum ores on Earth, i.e. mostly iron and nickel with some copper and cobalt. Concentration of platinum is about 0.00027%, or 270 parts per million.
The metallic particles exist all over the Moon, but the concentration does vary. Maps have been performed by various space probes orbiting the Moon and we have good knowledge of the distribution of metallic deposits by measuring their magnetic field strength, as well as from neutron spectrometers and other instruments. Some of the strongest magnetic fields have been measured on the north rim of the South-Pole Aitken-Basin feature on the far side of the Moon. This would be a good candidate location for a pilot mining project.
The low gravity of the Moon means it is relatively inexpensive to launch material from the Moon to the Earth. Furthermore, the platinum ore is very accessible, since it is lying out in the open on the surface of the Moon in crushed pulverized form, which makes it much easier to obtain than on Earth, where it is deep underground in hard rocky form requiring expensive blasting and grinding. Liftport believes it is possible to develop low cost two step processes to produce Platinum from lunar regolith.
Charles Radley has a B.S. in Physics, an M.S. in Systems Engineering, and about 20 years of aerospace experience. He was a part time technical consultant for Transorbital Corporation, the first private company to be licensed by the U.S. government to explore and land on the moon, and a member of the subcontractor teams for the Galileo and Magellan space probes, the International Space Station, Spacelab-MSL-1 and several communications satellite projects (e.g. Intelsat-6, Olympus). He is currently an EIT Engineer in Training registered in the State of California.