The European Space Agency has partnered with ArianeGroup to study a possible mission to the moon in 2025 to test the mining of lunar regolith, according to Popular Mechanics. Part-Time Scientists, a German group and former Google Lunar XPrize contestant, will also be involved in the study.
The goal is to place a lander on the lunar surface to mine and process regolith for useful materials such as water, oxygen, metals and an isotope called helium-3, which may prove useful for fueling future fusion reactors. Regolith, according to Universe Today, is a dust-like material that covers the lunar surface and is the result of billions of years of meteor and comet impacts. Future lunar settlers could use the regolith to build habitats for a moon base, or as the Europeans call it, a Moon Village using 3D printers and robotic assemblers.
The study will assess how to gather the regolith, process it into useful materials, and store them for the long term. The lander would be a prototype for future lunar mining facilities.
The proposed mission would launch on a version of ArianeGroup's launcher Ariane 6, which is still in development. Part-Time Scientists would provide the lunar lander. The German group is already putting together a private mission to the Apollo 17 landing site to examine its current state almost five decades after human beings last walked on the moon.
If, after a year, such a mining mission is found to be feasible, a funding proposal and plan will be presented to the member states of the ESA for approval. Then Europe will officially join the world-wide scramble for the moon.
China has already landed on the moon twice in the 21st century, with more missions to follow. SpaceIL, a private Israeli group, is scheduled to shoot for the moon in the middle of February. India’s Chandrayaan-2 will launch sometime this spring. NASA is developing lunar landing missions with nine commercial partners, including Moon Express and Astrobotic. Other countries and private entities are planning their own moon missions.
The proposed European lunar mission proves that two concepts, once considered in the realm of science fiction, have become mainstream.
Lunar mining has been a subject of speculation and study for decades. Now that practically the entire world is determined to return to the moon, mining the moon for the materials necessary to live on it has achieved a certain urgency. If people are going to live and work on the moon, then the more oxygen, water and other materials that can be extracted on site, the less will need to be shipped from Earth.
Having national space agencies such as NASA and the ESA partner with commercial companies and other private entities is the other long-fermenting dream that is becoming reality. NASA and the ESA, among other government space agencies, have experience and resources. Private groups such as Moon Express and PT Scientists have flexibility and entrepreneurial spirit. Separately, they would have difficulty achieving a long-term, complex undertaking such as returning to the moon. Together, with the strengths of agencies and the private sector combined, they may be unstoppable.
The 21st-century return to the moon is a far cry from the 1960s lunar race. Fifty years ago, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a contest with the fortune and glory of the first moon landing as the prize. The United States won, achieving an important victory in the Cold War. Curiously, China and to a certain extent India are clinging to the old, government-centric model, at least for the time being.
By the time the ESA lands on the lunar surface, the moon is likely to be a busy place, with landers touching down and sometimes taking off again with treasure troves of geological samples, and rovers rolling across the silent landscape. Everything will lead to the first moon boots on the lunar soil, sometime in the 2020s, and a fulfillment of the lost promise of Apollo.