Russia scopes out Moon-mining of rare earths

By IM Staff
Published: Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Scientists at Moscow State University have released a report suggesting it would technically be possible to pluck rare earths, lithium and gold from the surface of the lunar poles, however, the cost of developing the relevant technology coupled with low prices for the minerals and Russia’s economic problems could delay the project from being pursued.

By Vladislav Vorotnikov

Russia 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).

 Moon_Henrik M F, via Flickr
The Moon is being eyed as a potential source of rare earths by Russia's Federal Space Agency (source: Henrik M F, via Flickr). 

“Recovery 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.

According 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.

“In the 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.

“These 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 periods.”

“Orientation 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.

To date, 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.

Experts 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.

Although 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.

Further, 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.

Astronomical costs?

According 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.

If 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.

Developing 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.

“The 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.

At 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.

MSU 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.

Russian industry observers are confident that prices will rise, which could make Moon mining a profitable proposition, however it remains unclear when this will happen. 

Click here to download the pdf file.

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