Just two years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, a treaty was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. Signed even as the race to get to the moon was well underway, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty declared that no nation-state could ever own the moon.
The treaty, however, was written at a time when current threats were too real and visions of the future were too dim. Concepts like space tourism, orbital hotels, and companies mining the moon for minerals would have been written off as science fiction.
Fast-forward to today and you’ll find companies like Virgin Galactic ferrying wealthy tourists into space, a man skydiving from low orbit for a Red Bull advertisement, and companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries looking to mine the moon for its resources.
While the 1967 Space Treaty governs what countries can and cannot do on the moon, it leaves private companies unregulated. For countries like China, where many large companies are state-owned, the line separating the interests of government and business is unclear.
Before China’s Yutu “Jade Rabbit” moon rover malfunctioned, it was prodding the moon dirt with a bottom-mounted ground-scanning radar system searching for valuable minerals. China’s interests in these resources have been reported in Chinese media.
Ouyang Ziyuan, a senior adviser to China’s lunar program, told China’s state-run Xinhua newspaper, “Everyone knows fossil fuels such as gas and coal will be used up one day, but there are at least one million metric tons of helium-3 on the moon,” AFP reported.
Helium-3, is a valuable gas here on Earth, but its only “fuel” potential is in fusion energy—which is still highly experimental.
Russia is also eyeing the moon for helium-3, however, and plans to begin mining by 2020. The announcement was made back in January 2006 by Nikolai Sevastianov, head of Russia’s Rocket and Space Corporation Energia.
NASA has outlined its own interests in lunar mining. Its Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute argued in a report that mining rare minerals on the moon may be vital to national security.
The moon is rich with rare earth minerals, but NASA points out in its report, “Few see the moon as an alluring mining site, ripe for the picking of rare elements of strategic and national security importance.”
It adds that on Earth, where China controls about 95 percent of the global supply of rare earth minerals, Chinese authorities often limit exports.
“China is increasingly putting the pinch on quotas of such elements out of their country,” NASA states. “And as the scarcity of these valuable minerals grows, so too does the concern in other nations regarding the availability of this limited resource.”
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