may include rare earths
extraction as part of its lunar exploration programme to 2025, following the
publication of a report on the practicality of such a project by scientists at Moscow
State University (MSU).
|The Moon is being eyed as a potential source of rare earths by Russia's Federal Space Agency (source: Henrik M F, via Flickr). |
of Moon surface samples, which include rare earth minerals, may turn out to be
economically viable in the near future,” said Vladislav Shevchenko, head of research
on the Moon and planets at MSU’s State Astronomical Institute.
to Shevchenko, the surface of the Moon contains high concentrations of rare
earth elements thanks to impacts from asteroids, which are often rich in
minerals. Shevchenko’s team at MSU explained that many asteroids had collided
with the Moon at speeds of less than 12km per second, which is slow in cosmic
terms, meaning that these stellar objects are not evaporated on impact, strewing
the surface with mineralised craters.
next few years, all scheduled Moon flights will focus on its southern polar
region, where low-temperature reservoirs of rare earths, as well as unknown volatile
substances, have been detected,” the MSU scientists said.
minerals could not been found in the other areas, because of the large
temperature fluctuations in different parts of the Moon. During the day, the equatorial
regions heat up to temperatures of 130-150°C. In the polar regions, there are the
so-called cold traps for these minerals, which preserve them for quite long
of the lunar rotational axis in space is such that, in the polar regions of the
Moon, solar rays are propagating tangentially to the surface, creating a shadow
where the rays never fall,” Shevchenko said.
studies have shown that asteroid craters in cold traps contain rare earths,
such as scandium, erbium, prometium, terbium and number of others. They may also
contain lithium, gold and platinum group metals, as well as some unknown substances.
at MSU believe that searching for rare earths outside the Moon’s polar regions
would be difficult and pointed out that only elements available at surface
would be cost-effective to recover.
extracting rare earths from the Moon is theoretically feasible, the MSU
scientists admit such an undertaking would not be easy. Aside from practical
obstacles, prior to launching any commercial activity on the Moon, Russia will
have to get other countries to agree to the plan, under existing international
agreements regarding rights to the Moon.
given the current weak state of rare earths prices, the cost of developing he technology needed to mine Moon minerals is likely to be much higher than
any potential profit.
to Yuri Makarov, head of the strategic planning department at the Russian
Federal Space Agency, the overall cost of Russia’s planned Moon exploration
program is close to $2.5bn.
technology could be successfully developed to exploit minerals on the Moon,
there would be a case for constructing a Russian Moon Station, but this would
add significantly to the cost of the lunar programme, he said.
space equipment that could deliver Moon soil at a capacity of 10 tonnes per
flight would cost at least additional $2-3bn, according to estimates by Russian
space flight analysts.
immediate task is to create new modern space vehicles which will be able to
land in targeted locations,” Shevchenko said. “The Russian Scientific and
Production Association is already working on these systems. Ideally, these
devices should be tested by landing them in cold traps, but so far this has not
been possible, because the vehicles are powered by solar panels and therefore
need to be in the direct line of the sun,” he added.
present, the scheme does not look likely to take off any time soon. Due to the
current economic crisis in Russia, the country’s government last year cut
funding for its lunar exploration programme, leading the Russian Federal Space
Agency to delay manned flights to the satellite.
scientists believe that the viability of extracting rare earths from the Moon
will largely depend on global prices for the minerals. Today, prices are as low
as $1.5/kg for the lowest value elements, like cerium, and up to $250 for more
valuable minerals like dysprosium.
industry observers are confident that prices will rise, which could make Moon
mining a profitable proposition, however it remains unclear when this will