Last week, through an executive order by the US President Donald Trump, soon NASA is set to mine moon’s water ice and other natural resources. As early as 2015, the US had approved a law allowing American companies and citizens to use moon and asteroid resources.
What is special on Moon to Mine?
Moon is considered a trove for rare elements. Rare-earth elements are considered rare since they appear in only small concentrations on Earth. The process to extract these elements from host rocks is extremely difficult. Modern electronic items use these rare elements for critical functioning. For example, Yttrium is used in laser technology, Neodymium used in magnets and Europium used in televisions. Such elements can be considered vital to emerging technologies and China holds the largest reserves for these, making it about 90% supplier of these for the World.
As has been reported by the Financial Express Online earlier, India's Chandrayaan-1 mission discovered water presence on the lunar surface and this shall be most essential for sustenance of any colony on the Moon.
Helium-3 element is only available on Moon since lunar surface captures these particles originating from the Sun and blown outwards by the solar winds. Helium-3 is considered as a fuel for fusion reactors and can help in future space travel.
Lunar Rovers for Mining
Robots and Rovers have been the mainstay of research on Mars and NASA has spent a large amount of resources in their development for Space exploration. "These robots undertake human-guided tasks on Mars, Moon and any celestial body without the need to risk a human in a hazardous environment. Safety of astronauts in Space environment is paramount and a lot of support system needs to be built around humans to sustain them in Space, however, intelligent robots can be maintained in such places at many reduced obligations. NASA and the US Defence Research Institution DARPA is already creating 'Robonauts', who are basically Humanoids with Artificial Intelligence for carrying out activities in Space similar to a human being," says Milind Kulshreshtha, C4I expert.
"For decades NASA has been focused on creating hi-tech but small and smart, multi-purpose robotic landers to achieve scientific and exploration goals on inhabitable celestial bodies. The power source for these equipment shall be predominantly Solar energy harnessed through batteries," he adds.
Colonization of Moon
The colonization of the moon and Lunar mining has always been a well-established theory for many decades. And NASA already has plans to land humans on Moon in 2024 as agenda of Artemis 3 mission, 55 years after Apollo 17 blast off. They are going to be the first people on Moon in the 21st Century.
According to Kulshreshtha, "Any ambition to setup mining activity on the moon shall involve Moon colonization as the first step, along with Moon mining requiring an operational infrastructure with storage setup on the Lunar surface itself. Even though SpaceX has already brought down the launch costs with reusable rockets but any mining effort on the Lunar surface as a commercial activity shall require a lot of Governmental funding. The supply chain for raw material from Lunar surface back to Earth is not considered a commercially viable option unless the product processing of some sort is undertaken on the Lunar surface itself."
Further, there are multiple natural challenges on Lunar surface such as high radiation and extreme surface temperature variations. "The Moondust being considered as construction material there, itself is an extremely abrasive glassy substance, which poses a health hazard and can play havoc with machinery," he explains. Even the long duration low gravity exposure has many adverse health hazards on humans like muscular degeneration and loss of bone density etc. Therefore, "Mining activity infrastructure on Lunar surface shall be a time-consuming engineering process, and no shortcuts can be taken when it comes to Space operations."
Space Command Post
With resourceful commercial players like Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Elon Musk's Space X projects investing billions of dollars into Space and rocketry technology, the zone between Earth to Moon shall be a critical area of operations in military terms. Already, Low Earth Orbit is part of ISR activities for achieving an advantage over an adversary on Earth.
A US Space Command was launched a couple of months back so as to achieve combat and combat support functions through Space-based weapon support systems. The weaponization of space was carried out by the US as early as in 1985 and again gained an independent status recently due to threat perceived with a rapid Space technology advancements made by Russia and China. Furthermore, the space located assets too shall require adequate protection and this can lead to a conflict between rivals, that starts in Space and extends to Earth.
China too has an ambitious space programme, and in 2007 it tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. Overall, in 2003 China's first manned mission to Space was successfully achieved and by 2008 Chinese 'Taikonauts' had completed the first Spacewalk. A Chinese Space Station programme was established in 2011 with the first crewed Space Station docking occurring in 2016. Since January 2019, a Chinese lunar rover is operating on the dark side of the Moon. China is also known to be progressing with positioning a new space station for a long term presence in Space and plans to have a Moon base too.
Lack of Space Treaties
According to experts, the Rules of Road for Space is not in the form of any Treaty approved by the United Nations or any other Central body. However, an Outer Space Treaty agreed upon under Chairmanship of United Nations office for Outer Space Affairs only restricts a nation from owning any land on Moon. It does not limit any nation from the exploration of Lunar surface for minerals and metals, thereby, making the US mining effort a legal activity. Also, there is no clear consensus on the level of militarization and weaponization of Space giving a definite advantage to initial explorers and colonizers in Space.
Keeping in mind the likely shape of the world in the near future, the US has used the Space card to leverage all its advantages to maintain its leadership position in World power dynamics. It's geopolitical, commercial and military objectives have always been intertwined to focus on maintaining number one position as a Super Power.