Complex Made Simple

The battle for conquering the Moon and other celestial bodies is on

From mining the Moon to drilling through asteroids, many on Earth have set sights to extract materials that we need on our planet. It could make people very rich, but is the law behind them?

Robots were developed that drill through rock 5 times faster than any other method Space mining is also set to go beyond our celestial neighbor There was renewed debate in 2020 over governance of the heavens

Scientists are increasingly setting their sights on technology that would allow future missions to mine the Moon for resources

A team of researchers from the University of Arizona recently received a $500,000 grant from NASA to develop space-mining methods aiming for a swarm of autonomous robots that could search and mine for rare earth metals on the Moon, a press release explained.

The team behind the robots developed an electrochemical process that drills through rock 5 times faster than any other method. These robots will have the capabilities to work together and improve their collaboration skills over time via machine learning, without instruction from Earth.

Vitaly Kusaylo-iStock

Materials that could be mined on the Moon include rare earth metals such as Titanium, Gold, and Platinum which could help build medical equipment, and Helium-3 which could fuel nuclear power plants. 

The University of Arizona team isn’t alone in this endeavor. Last June, California-based Masten Systems announced it was developing a lunar rover that could blast through Moon rock to reach ice, providing vital water resources to future lunar stations.

Space mining is also set to go beyond our celestial neighbor, as asteroids in our solar, such as 16 Psyche contain abundant materials with a net worth estimated to be $700 quintillion. It contains roughly 22 billion billion pounds (10 billion billion kilograms) of nickel and iron, which are used in everything from reinforced concrete to mobile phones. It could supply our industrial needs for several million years. 

Moon observatory

In April 2020, NASA awarded the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope (LCRT) project $500,000 for further research towards robots building a massive radio telescope on the far side of the Moon in a 100-meter long, bowl-shaped crater with the mission of observing radio wavelengths that are 10 meters and longer.

Why build this on the moon? Well, Earth’s dense atmosphere, light pollution, and man-made electromagnetic radiation significantly hamper our ability to clearly observe the cosmos.

On Earth, scientists are unable to observe cosmic radio waves that are longer than 10 meters because of the ionosphere, a layer of electrons that absorb any radio wavelengths over 10 meters long. On the Moon, a lack of atmosphere and radiation, and shielded from electromagnetic noise, could vastly improve observations. 

Is it legal to mine space?

Asteroids are the fragmented remains of almost-planets, but they contain all of the same mixtures of elements as their larger planetary cousins.  

On August 5, NASA announced it is launching a mission next year to study Psyche 16, a 220 km-wide asteroid comprised mostly of iron and nickel. It will take NASA’s space probe four years to reach the asteroid, which is nestled between Mars and Jupiter.

Europe in general stands ready to exploit asteroids, albeit the near-Earth ones (orbiting between Earth and Mars), rather than those in the Asteroid belt beyond Mars.

Luxembourg was the first country in Europe to offer a legal framework for the exploration and use of space resources. It established a dedicated space law in 2017 that provided a high level of protection for investors, explorers, and miners.  

There was renewed debate in 2020 over governance of the heavens after a flurry of outer-space activities.  

The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space sets the standard for the development of international space law, and various treaties have provided a basic set of rules.

These treaties remain untested, however, regarding who would own the rights to minerals found in outer space. For commercial space projects, including mining, to be viable, explorers and investors will need to be certain of their rights to extract the materials they discover.

Although the UN’s Outer Space Treaty defines and forbids the appropriation of the Moon or any other celestial bodies, it does not prevent the appropriation of resources in outer space.

3D printing on the moon

AON3D, a manufacturer of 3D printers, raised $11.5 million in a funding round, bringing it one step closer to sending a lunar lander to the moon, according to a recent press release.

And, if it succeeds, it could be the first to land 3D-printed machinery on the moon.

Astrobotic is another company that aims to manufacture parts for a lander with a shot at being the first 3D-printed vehicle to soft-land on the moon since Apollo 17, called the Peregrine Lander.