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Mining the Moon?
Julia Levitt, 27 Oct 08
Article Photo

Someone please tell me if I'm missing something.

The New York Times reported last week that on October 22, India launched its first unmanned spacecraft to orbit the moon.

The craft is expected to remain in space for two years. During that time, it will do something undeniably cool:

prepare a 3-D atlas of the moon.

The other part of its mission, however, is something I find pretty unsettling:

and prospect the lunar surface for natural resources, including uranium, a coveted fuel for nuclear power plants, according to the Indian Space Research Organization.

Because the Times piece focuses so much on the accelerating competition between India and China for their shares of space race-related prestige and economic opportunity, that surreal sentence seems to fade into the background, in terms of importance. But the idea has been lingering in my mind since I first read this story, six days ago.

It seems like the statement raised questions with others, also. For example, Jacob Leibenluft at Slate discussed the legal question of whether India would have rights to any uranium it found up there.

Could the resulting electricity, no matter what its purposes, ever possibly justify the resources required -- in fuel, material and development time alone -- to mine the moon for uranium?

I wonder where the question of mining other celestial bodies to serve the 20th-century energy needs of the human population falls in the debate around understanding and protecting our home planet. It seems that a switch to renewables here on Earth is the much safer, more stable option.

Photo credit: flickr/Fingerz, Creative Commons license.

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The topic of resources on the Moon frequently leads to discussion of helium-3, a light isotope of helium that theoretically could be used to power society through nuclear fusion. The University of Wisconsin has a research program into the physics ( NASA in the past has conducted from fun thought experiments on how to capture atoms of organic elements in moon dust to make "food," but they are just that -- thought experiments. The Chinese have expressed an interest in helium-3, but I hadn't seen this India story -- thanks!

Posted by: Eric Roston on 27 Oct 08

"Could the resulting electricity, no matter what its purposes, ever possibly justify the resources required -- in fuel, material and development time alone -- to mine the moon for uranium?"

No. Electricity from nukes can't even justify the resources required to mine the EARTH for uranium.

Posted by: greensolutions on 27 Oct 08

Hi, i don't think it would be a sensible thing to use it for mining uranium, since nuclear power is just not useful as a major part of energy coverage (What was it? Yod'd need to build 13000 reactors or so worldwide to substitute fossils with nuclear energy?).
But still i think it would lead in the correct direction. Here's an interesting link on that topic (space expansion...): (Space Studies Institute)

Posted by: Ogion on 27 Oct 08

To what end? I suppose uranium mined on the moon might be a good fuel source for a moon base or moon built space craft, but the notion of packing it in a return flight for re-entry in Earth's atmosphere to fuel dirt side reactors seems ... ludicrous and dangerous. Fusion fuels might be worth bringing home, but we aren't quite there yet ...

Posted by: Mark Mulkerin on 27 Oct 08

The mental image of highly enriched uranium careening through the Earth's atmosphere does send the proverbial chill down ones spine. While I am no advocate of nuclear fission power, I doubt that if this plan ever comes to fruition, the above mental image would be the case.

If India has absolutely no reliable access to Uranium deposits here on Earth, the costs for establishing such a huge amount of space based infrastructure might be justified.

If a project such as this happens, it would be the first real steps to true space colonization (real people like plumbers, aluminum siders, etc - not just the 'elite few')

What they will probably realize however is 2 week long lunar days and no clouds to mess up the sunlight would make a perfect and clean place for large scale solar power stations.

Posted by: Electric Bike Guy on 27 Oct 08

It strikes me as a little addition for local consumption, to boost national pride and underline India's status as a nuclear power.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 27 Oct 08

The comments here are based on sheer ignorance. Sad and pathetic. Surveying the lunar crust for its mineral composition is of value for understanding the Moon's geological evolution, not because anyone wants to bring lunar uranium down to Earth. As if the prohibitive cost of bringing uranium back to Earth would make it financially viable, especially when uranium is in adequate supply here on Earth.
Unfortunately, there are all kinds of immature self-styled journalists publishing articles in the blogverse.

Posted by: Sanjay on 27 Oct 08

Woah there...
The anger is a little bit misdirected on Sanjay's part, it's the NYTimes journalist that makes the connections to nuclear fuel for whatever reason it decided to do that. The blogosphere just questioned the NYTimes claim. If you're angry, be angry at the professional journalists, they do the propagandizing, and it's people like Julia and Jacob that do the investigating.

Still, here's a paste from the FAQ on, which any article on the topic could've offered to put their investigation into perspective:

5. What are Chandrayaan's scientific goals?
The Chandrayaan-1 mission is aimed at high-resolution remote sensing of the Lunar surface in visible, near Infrared, low energy X-rays and high-energy X-ray regions. Specific scientific goals are:
To prepare a three-dimensional atlas (with a high spatial and altitude resolution of 5-10 m) of both near and far side of the moon.
To conduct chemical and mineralogical mapping of the entire lunar surface for distribution of mineral and chemical elements such as Magnesium, Aluminum, Silicon, Calcium, Iron and Titanium as well as high atomic number elements such as Radon, Uranium & Thorium with high spatial resolution.
By simultaneous photo geological and chemical mapping, we will be able to identify different geological units, which will test the hypothesis for the origin and early evolutionary history of the moon and help in determining the nature of the lunar crust.

Posted by: Kunal Gupta on 27 Oct 08

I think that Chandrayaan 1 is a big step ahead for the Indian space program, which has always kept India ahead of other similar developing nations in terms of remote sensing, satellite communication and surveying. It proves the launch capabilities of the PSLV which has been involved in putting multiple payloads into orbit.

One of the biggest achievements of Chandrayaan 1 that has not been mentioned in this Worldchanging article is the cost of the whole mission - around $86 million, which is a measly sum, compared to the budgets of similar missions by NASA. Missions like Chandrayaan and Space Ship One repeatedly emphasize the fact that most of the money spent on space research in large organizations like NASA is not all well spent, although the results are of course, superb.

The M3 device on board the Chandrayaan is an American instrument used to carry out geological measurements like determining the chemical composition of the moon. The 3D map of the moon's terrain will be invaluable in future missions that are being planned by the US, India and China. It could set the stage for a human colonization of the moon, although that is probably many decades away yet.

Mining the moon for resources is probably more safe and ethical than mining some parts of the earth for resources, be it nuclear material or other resources.

Posted by: philramble on 28 Oct 08

In the (very) long term, extraterrestrial prospecting isn't as crazy as it sounds.

The gravity well of the moon is small so in terms of getting stuff back to Earth, it takes little energy. There are enormous quantities of solar power on the moon and there should be plenty of raw materials to build anything you might need for extraction.

So we wouldn't need to ship that much up to the moon (which would be very energy intensive). Whether we need to go to these lengths is of course another matter.

What would be crazy is bringing back radioactive material as there is no safe way of bringing it out of orbit (at least until someone builds an elevator). But as pointed out by Kunal, it looks like the NYT journo got the wrong end of the stick on this matter.

Most importantly, we don't need much more in the way of nukes in the face of such mind boggling quantities of renewable energy available to us.

Posted by: Scatter on 28 Oct 08

Sorry but I had seen this coming for years, no government in the world not even the US oh sorry especially not the US would invest billions for the sake of only knowledge about the universe and the origines of man. But seeing that I didn't want to make a philosophical comment, ask now the next question why are the governments of the world investing billions to finance a scientific project of which its goal is so called checking the scientific theories, while the outcome would also lead to possible endless energy resources. If the first story is true check the second. And in case you don't know which story its the experiment in Geneva which could create a microscopic black hole, the most dense form of matter. Interested in your thoughts.

Posted by: Stichting FICK on 28 Oct 08

It's distinctly plausible that a coallition of governments would spend €6ish billion on the LHC for scientific research - it's cheap compared to other international efforts!

As far as I know, the LHC isn't expected to produce much in the way of of energy sources. Governments are investing around €10 billion in ITER which has a much better chance of producing energy than the LHC, although the chances of ITER doing anything useful are looking pretty slim.

And the ISS, one of the most depressingly impressive methods of burning cash, has cost an astonishing €100 billion ( ). That doesn't generate much in the way of science at all.

Now, how about governments getting together to throw few billion making CSP, high altitude wind, geothermal and other useful renewables cheaper...? We can dream.

Posted by: Scatter on 28 Oct 08

S.F., no-one involved thinks the LHC is going to discover new sources of energy. Various technical advances have to be made, just to build the thing and make it work, and they may have spinoff value; and the same may be said for the mathematical physics being tested. But the proposals that the LHC might do something truly dramatic, like destroy the earth, face the problem that more energetic collisions regularly occur in the upper atmosphere, when cosmic rays impact the ions there. If their byproducts were so dangerous, the earth should have been destroyed long ago.

Talk that the LHC might create micro black holes, wormholes, and so on is mostly just the excitement of theorists. The situation can be compared to climate change: we do not know all the feedback loops involved, but the magnitude of the climate response to the change in incoming radiation which initiates an ice age suggests that when everything known and unknown is added up, you get a temperature response of a certain magnitude. Similarly, though we may not know exactly what is produced in particle collisions at LHC energies, the fact that they happen in nature all the time without destroying the earth allows us to say something about the total effect of these byproducts, namely that they are harmless (unlike the climate change byproducts!).

Posted by: mitchell porter on 29 Oct 08

I don't know why Somini Sengupta is still a professional journalist, but what she said in the article is an absolute blunder. India is not going to mine Uranium from moon. ISRO said its looking for feasible options to use the Helium3 on the surface of moon. But they never said anything about mining Uranium there.

Posted by: JK on 29 Oct 08



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