Mining on the moon could soon be reality

Mining the moon's resources is closer than you think.

NASA astronaut exploring Moon surface photographed by Apollo 14 crew (Photo: Dennis Hallinan/Alamy)

Earlier this year, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich announced his commitment to space exploration with a rather unexpected proclamation: “By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American,” he promised.

Critics, including political opponent Mitt Romney, dismissed Gingrich’s plan as, well, lunacy. But it turns out that for scientists and astronauts, Newt’s vision isn’t science fiction. On March 1, the heads of the International Space Station met in Quebec City and discussed how to advance human space exploration. And some countries’ space agencies are already working toward establishing a base on the moon and extracting the resources there.

Below the moon’s surface lie valuable substances such as gold, platinum and rare-earth elements. But it may be the high volume of helium-3, a non-radioactive isotope, that is of most interest. It has the potential to generate power through a fusion reaction. The China National Space Administration has expressed interest in accessing that He-3 and has already sent two unmanned orbiters to the moon with plans to send a rover next year. What’s missing is an operable fusion reactor to make mining the moon’s helium-3 and carting it back to earth a viable enterprise, but that too is in development.

Canada is a player in this race for space resources. Several Canadian space companies are working on prototypes of excavation rovers that might one day dig for water on the moon; without that H2O, it would be difficult to mine anything else.

Dale Boucher works as a senior developer at one of those companies, Northern Centre for Advanced Technology in Sudbury, Ont. His team developed light, low-power drilling technology that will work in temperatures colder than liquid nitrogen. Boucher calls water the moon’s Holy Grail resource.

“I personally think the first real potential market for off-planet resources is going to be something that utilizes water. You can purify it and drink it, you can crack it using solar cell technology and turn it into hydrogen and oxygen to breathe and power fuel cells, or you can use it as a chemical rocket propellant,” he says. “As we start looking at doing human outposts or missions to Mars, we need to understand how to provide this resource.”

As one of the largest repositories of mining knowledge on earth, Canada has an opportunity to nurture that technology development here at home. Nine of the world’s top 40 mining companies are Canadian, and 30% of all mining acquisitions in 2011 had a Canadian buyer—more than any other country.

Boucher says the government’s role right now is to absorb some of the difficult, non-recurring engineering costs to make it easier for private investors to take on a large moon prospecting development project. “We’re on the threshold of this mining being a viable economic activity,” he says. “If the government is proactive, this is a capability we can keep in the country.”