With the ever growing population on Earth and our unbridled consumption of our resources, we humans might one day have to go beyond the Blue Planet in search of replacements, whether for pure financial purposes or to care for our growing head counts. The closest celestial body to us and as such the easiest to reach is the moon. Though at first glance, the latter looks like a barren desert, it nonetheless has vast ressources that could be useful to industries one Earth. So, are there resources exploitable on the Moon? What are these resources and how could we use them?
In recent years, the Moon – and the asteroids – has indeed stoked the interest of private companies and countries around the world such as the United States and Luxembourg. In 2015, the Obama Space Act voted authorized for the first time the exploitation of space resources by private actors. The Pandora’s box was open, and two years later, Luxembourg in turn passed a law for the exploitation of space resources.
But what are these coveted resources that would lay errant on our natural satellite? First, there is helium 3 (3He), an extremely rare element on Earth but deposited in abundance on the lunar soil by the solar winds. This isotope has the particularity of being the ideal fuel for nuclear fusion, a process that consists in assembling two light atomic nuclei (nuclear energy is currently obtained by fission of heavy nuclei, uranium or plutonium), which allows to produce considerable amounts of energy without radioactive waste. It can be extracted by heating the ground. If we manage to control nuclear fusion, helium-3 would solve our energy problems. However, researches have been carried out since the years 1950, without any clear success to industrialize the process.
Lunar water is also a strategic resource, especially in the perspective of establishing a lunar base. The American LRO (Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter) has detected large quantities of water in the form of ice, especially at the South Pole. This area is constantly hidden from the sun and at – 120 °C, the ice has survived for billions of years. There would be thousands of tons of water available. This water is essential to the functioning of a lunar base, but it also has an interest in the supply of space stations. “It takes 40 times less energy to transport water from the moon to the ISS than from the Earth!” says Bernard Foing of the European Space Agency (ESA). A gallon of water sent today to the station costs about 40,000 dollars; a lunar colony will have to live on local resources.
The electrolysis of water would also produce hydrogen, liquid oxygen and hydrogen peroxide, fuels used for spacecraft. The Moon would become a sort of service station for maintenance and cleaning operations in Earth orbit, or for interplanetary flights to Mars and beyond.
The establishment of a sustainable lunar base will also rely on the exploitation of lunar regolith, that is to say, the superficial layer of dust that covers all the plains and seas. This would serve as raw material for 3D printers to produce the building elements of the base.
Another interesting “resource”, this time much to the interest of astronomers: the hidden face of the Moon. Protected from electromagnetic pollution, with no atmosphere, which blocks the longest wavelengths, it is the ideal place to pick up low-frequency radio waves. “This is the only way to detect some weak footprints left by the Big Bang on the cosmos,” wrote the English cosmologist Joseph Silk in Nature, a year ago, calling for the establishment of a radio telescope on the hidden side from the moon. “We need these signals to know if and how the Universe inflated rapidly to the first billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. Such an instrument would also make it possible to detect possible emissions of extraterrestrial civilizations.
“But we will have to ask the question of the compatibility of all these projects with international law,” says Xavier Pasco, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research. The 1967 Space Treaty makes it clear that one can not appropriate or exploit for private purposes a celestial body, considered as the common good of humanity. The Moon Treaty of 1979, for its part, advocates the need for an international regime for the exploitation of the Moon and other celestial bodies. But this treaty is considered a failure, the great space nations — the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India, the UK and France — not having ratified it.