Western Slope Skies - Mining the Moon

Jan 8, 2021

Credit NASA

The Moon is iconic, seen and enjoyed from anywhere on Earth. It is so coveted that the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in a space race to see who could reach the Moon first. In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first to land on its surface. This race inspired the first international space treaty. Dubbed “the Outer Space Treaty,” the 1960s document governed the first international laws about space and forbade any single country from owning celestial bodies, including the Moon. Instead, they were to be enjoyed and studied by all.

But what about mining on the Moon? The U.S. legalized mining the Moon in 2015 and five years later, the U.S. led nine other countries in adopting the Artemis Accords. These accords establish ten tenets for creating a lasting human presence on the Moon through international cooperation. One of them is “extracting and utilizing space resources,” to mine on the Moon, asteroids, and other celestial objects.

Even with international law prohibiting ownership claims in space, it is still unclear whether private businesses can mine resources in space. As NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains, “Space law experts question whether the Treaty could prevent private ownership - there's nothing stopping miners from claiming property rights and using the moon as a commercial venture.”

The Moon is a globally important cultural object, the focus of movies, books, and art for thousands of years. Mining on the Moon has never been done, so we don’t know the potential impacts. Extracting materials from the Moon raises concerns. Mining could involve extracting rare earth metals (REMs), which are used in producing new technology. Most of Earth’s supply is estimated to be depleted in the next two decades and the mining of REMs can have a harmful environmental impact. If we mine for these materials on the Moon the way that we mine for them on Earth, what would be the effect?

Everyone has a connection to the Moon, but many of us take it for granted. Consider the impacts that mining might have on our celestial neighbor.

Western Slope Skies is produced by members of the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Megan Spencer.