By: Felix Spiekerkotter
Edited By: Alexandra Huggins
India etched its name into history on August 23, 2023, as the Chandrayaan-3 mission successfully touched down on the moon. This marked the nation as only the fourth to achieve a successful landing on the lunar surface. This isn’t merely a step for India but a giant leap, embedding itself within the nation’s narrative. Prime Minister Modi hailed this triumph as a reflection of a “new, developing India,” underlining India’s emerging ambition amidst geopolitical tensions. With India’s new successes it becomes imperative to delve deeper into what exactly the moon harbors.
In a moment of reflection, President John F. Kennedy once talked about the rapid pace of human progress, suggesting that if all of recorded history was condensed into a half-century, the significant milestones of recent times would have happened within mere days. Sixty years post his famous Moon Speech, as we stand on the brink of a renewed lunar expedition, the pace hasn’t slackened; if anything, it has picked up.
Unlike the 1960s, when the USA and the USSR were the primary competitors, today nations like China and India have joined the discussion. What is more, private entities are also looking for a slice of the lunar pie. The twenty-first-century moon race is in full throttle. However, with an accelerated pace come complications. Established space cooperation has weakened, notably after Russia’s 2022 attack on Ukraine. The current environment is volatile, ruled by complicated treaties and failed agreements. The pace of human advancements, as Kennedy highlighted, might be outstripping the regulatory capacities. The stakes are high, and we have mere years to address this.
At the heart of this renewed interest in the Moon lies a fundamental question:
Does the Moon possess resources that justify a return?
Though smaller than the Asian continent and only marginally larger than Africa, the Moon has profoundly influenced life on Earth. Its formation, likely due to a colossal collision between Proto-Earth and a proto-planet named Theia, has made it a sibling to Earth, as the astonishingly similar isotopes from lunar samples suggest. But unlike Earth, which has undergone continuous evolution, the Moon has remained relatively unchanged for billions of years, save for meteor impacts. This means that the Moon has preserved millions or even billions of years’ worth of material valuable for understanding our universe.
Unearthing Lunar Resources
Regolith, a Greek term for “broken rock,” predominantly covers the Moon, and has done so for millions of years. This fragmented surface, a result of meteor impacts, has absorbed solar winds for billions of years due to the Moon’s lack of atmosphere. Embedded in it is Helium-3 (3He), a potential clean nuclear fuel, albeit in limited quantities and difficult to extract.
Surprisingly, the Moon also possesses oxygen, present as anhydrous oxide in lunar regolith or as water in polar ice. Recent discoveries have shown that the Moon’s permanently dark craters house water in the form of ice, which could be invaluable for space exploration.
Adjacent to these water-rich craters lie the peaks of eternal light, which are permanently illuminated, offering consistent solar energy generation. This is vital since most lunar explorations will likely rely on solar energy.
In addition, satellite missions have identified peculiar pits on the lunar surface, leading to subsurface voids. These caves, remnants of volcanic activities, could offer shelter from meteorites, cosmic radiation, and temperature fluctuations. Alongside these caves, meteor impacts have introduced metals and rare earth elements (RRE) to the Moon, making it a potential mining site.
The Moon’s Potential for Humanity
The uneven distribution of lunar resources, especially around the poles, presents both challenges and opportunities. The Shackleton crater, for instance, combines water-trapping capabilities with consistent illumination. Nearby lunar caves could serve as safe havens for humans, protecting them from external threats such as solar radiation.
Water, not just as a life-sustaining element but also as a potential source of rocket fuel, would also be of immense importance. Nearby areas for effective solar energy production amplify the value of these regions. However, these resources around the poles are limited, making their judicious use crucial.
Mining activities, especially for 3He or RRE, would require considerable energy and could alter vast lunar landscapes.
The Moon undeniably offers immense potential. However, as nations and private entities race to stake their claim, regulatory challenges loom ahead. The breathtaking pace of progress, as Kennedy noted, may be outpacing our ability to manage and protect these invaluable resources. As we stand on the brink of a new lunar era, it’s imperative to be careful, ensuring the Moon’s wonders benefit all of humanity without leading to a new geopolitical dilemma.