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Expert Voices

Mining the moon to help save life on Earth (op-ed)

Moving heavy industrial activities off Earth could help solve some of our planets' problems, some experts say.
Moving heavy industrial activities off Earth could help solve some of our planets' problems, some experts say. (Image credit: NASA)

Lewis Pinault is a partner at Airbus Ventures (opens in new tab), where he invests and serves as board director for space technology related startups across the globe. A NASA-trained meteoriticist, he is also a researcher at University College London/Birkbeck's Centre for Planetary Sciences, presently collaborating with JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences. Pinault contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Humanity's fossil fuel (opens in new tab) war — a war waged with insane relentlessness on both ourselves and on our planet — has never raged more brightly, or with such power of irreversible destruction. 

Whatever the purported causes, we are presently witnessing a savagery that seems designed to serve only one dark rationale: incurring such pain that a concession of Ukraine's eastern Dnieper-Donetsk region, holding upwards of 90% of the country's vast oil, gas and coal reserves, becomes as seemingly acceptable as the loss of Crimea and its significant offshore gas reserves five years earlier. 

Live updates: Ukraine invasion's impacts on space exploration

Lewis Pinault, partner at Airbus Ventures.

Lewis Pinault, partner at Airbus Ventures. (Image credit: Lewis Pinault/Airbus Ventures)

This time, the fossil fuel war has rapidly cascading global dimensions. As the flow of hydrocarbons is stymied in some quarters, it is unleashed in unprecedented quantities in others; the price of oil escalates, allowing still-saleable Russian oil to pay and fuel yet more armor and destruction. Presumed allies amongst the fossil fuel kingdoms are revealed for the cynical oil-worshippers they are, and the world's autocrats, who can never rally more than uncomplicated base emotions, are grateful for the cruel simplicities of avoiding complex change and sacrifice at any cost.

Even as the final Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (opens in new tab) concludes that the elimination of fossil fuels is the only practical and timely path to avoiding irreversible climate damage and all its concomitant crises of disease, starvation and forced migration — orders of magnitude larger than present-day Ukraine's — humanity continues to inject fossil fuels into the system.

In the meantime, unchecked consumerism drives mining more places for more metals for more phones and more cars; large-scale agriculture and forestry operations — with little relation to sustainable nutrition or housing needs — encroach on wild habitats essential to our biosphere, further driving disease and more deadly mass migrations of thousands of species; fresh water supplies are imperilled, and we are amidst one of the biosphere's greatest extinctions (opens in new tab) — an event that's likely to consume us before we can even fully catalogue it.

This false-color photograph is a composite of 15 images of the moon taken through three color filters by NASA’s Galileo Jupiter probe during the spacecraft's passage through the Earth-moon system on Dec. 8, 1992. Areas appearing red generally correspond to the lunar highlands, while blue to orange shades indicate the ancient volcanic lava flow of a mare, or lunar sea. Bluer mare areas contain more titanium than do the orange regions.

This false-color photograph is a composite of 15 images of the moon taken through three color filters by NASA’s Galileo Jupiter probe during the spacecraft's passage through the Earth-moon system on Dec. 8, 1992. Areas appearing red generally correspond to the lunar highlands, while blue to orange shades indicate the ancient volcanic lava flow of a mare, or lunar sea. Bluer mare areas contain more titanium than do the orange regions. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Is outer space the answer to Earth's burgeoning planetary crises?

Piecing together these shards of a seemingly broken civilization, this generation's complicated investment in the exploration and exploitation of outer space is rightly called into question, especially when our overheating home planet Earth is pleading for corrective behavior and needs our immediate attention most. While the invasion of Ukraine has opened a new front in the fossil fuel war in Earth orbit, and encrypted communications and satellite observation seem to be working in favor of the country's defense, these "Dark Skies (opens in new tab)" technologies are arguably as dangerous to our planet and civilization as they are to protecting corners of it.  

It's likely we've already triggered Earth's irreversible greenhouse effect (opens in new tab). And the forces summoning us to the apocalypse now not only include an ever more dangerous nuclear capability — with increasingly imaginative rationales for using the arsenal, thanks to the fossil fuel war — but also fast multiplying vectors to disease, contamination and starvation, as global heating demonstrates exponential powers to de-ice the planet, raise seas over every coastal habitat and create further spirals of apocalyptic havoc. Ignoring opportunities to mobilize against asteroid strikes, ungoverned artificial intelligence (AI) development, the prospect of nano and genetic technologies run amok and new classes of chemical and biological weapons and our tragically demonstrated willingness to use any and all weapons only adds to our escalating planetary crisis.

This disturbing reality has fuelled the notion of the need for a "Planet B" or the creation of other large-scale human colonies in space, with aims to outdistance humanity from man-made disaster. But these aims are not achievable on time scales that can likely outrun the forces now aligning against the biosphere. And as we're only just learning, this biosphere is also not very readily transported. Without a biome rich in diversity at every scale — from the soil's many inhabitants to the germs, molds and bacteria living amongst all our macrofauna — most space habitats are likely to suffer crises of infection and disease that threaten to be all-consuming. Investing in space development so that we can escape this planet's dooms is thus more than morally questionable — it's simply not likely to work, not in time.

Space tourism as an investment path also seems tragicomic. Taking sizeable fractions of the planet's inequitably distributed resources to sightsee down on the masterpieces of disaster we've created, perhaps on the chance we'll improve someone's perspective — or set their minds toward some new course of planetary justice — seems hubristic at best, and at worst may already be creating new enemies for any kind of space development, just, I argue, when we need it most.

Ultimately, for Earth's sake, we need to begin untapping the resources of outer space now, with urgency and with a priority focus on the gifts of the moon. This is not with the aim of a "sustainable lunar economy" that makes the moon more habitable for astronauts or space tourists, but with the aim of drawing resources from the moon to make Earth newly habitable.

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The moon as a natural and abundant resource for minerals and clean energy — for Earth — and as a first platform for moving toxic manufacturing away from our biosphere

New technologies and approaches, many pioneered by startup companies, now make decades-old speculations feasible — not by heaving solar power stations up to Earth orbit, not by mining asteroids, not by stripping the moon to fuel nuclear fusion — but by using new robotics, AI, autonomous systems, 3D printing and materials technologies to rapidly create and operate the infrastructure to bring abundant clean energy and mineral resources from the moon to Earth; and with these capabilities we can begin basing biosphere-maiming manufacturing elsewhere in the Earth-moon system.

The moon is a complex rock, but still a rock, rich in silicates. Whether cheaply bringing autonomously constructed solar arrays from the moon's low gravity well to Earth orbit, or by beaming solar energy directly from the lunar nearside toward Earth, we have the means to supply clean energy from the moon, without resorting to complex, large-scale mining of helium isotopes for still-developing fusion technologies.

Importantly, the moon is truly our geological twin. In the earliest ages of the solar system, a sizable planetoid smashed into the still-aborning Earth, forever mixing its materials into Earth's own makeup, gestating the resulting orbiting debris of a similar mix that agglomerated and became our moon. Thus, our moon has abundances similar to Earth's of the metals that can supply catalysts for hydrogen fuel cells, as well as of the metals that are driving critically damaging mining operations on Earth's surface and now even its oceans. If we feel we must have hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles — and they are the only clear path to clean transportation on Earth — and if we need our rare-metal smart chips to power our cars, phones and navigation systems, then we should be using autonomous systems to mine them from the moon, where their harm to Earth in extraction will be far more negligible. 

Given the urgency of Earth's biosystem crises, the moon offers opportunity for deployable infrastructure and extraction long before asteroid harvesting becomes practicable. With largely automated solar panel and mining operations underway, progress toward establishing Earth-toxic manufacturing facilities on the moon and in cislunar space can begin accelerating.

Here there is a risk we must accept, of multiplying the immoralities of what we've done to damage Earth on the moon. Will we damage the moon's own wisp of an atmosphere, firing rocket engines upon it and mining its surface? Almost certainly yes, and that atmosphere contains important traces of the solar system's earliest history and origins. Will we visibly alter the surface of the lunar nearside that has faced humans since time immemorial, even shifting the albedo of the light of the moon, home and totem of gods and rituals since our own very beginnings? Very possibly. Will our lunar operations require communication technologies that disrupt the pristine quiet of the lunar far side, a natural isolated platform for deep radio astronomy probes of the universe? Very likely.

In the course of my own research (opens in new tab), I seek out the dust particles that may be traces of long-gone alien civilizations' waste or pre-programmed materials, carried by stellar winds across the eons to finally settle on the moon — what a tragedy to lose the opportunity to prioritize their discovery — but I am happy to settle for extractions of mining operations, if this is the course to our very planetary survival. For the fact is that the moon is not home to any lifeform we might responsibly recognize — in important contradistinction to Mars — and our opportunity to multiply the future of life is clearly with the Earth-moon system, and not the moon alone.

The first step toward realizing the moon as a critical energy and resource base for Earth is to survey the surface at high resolution. This is practically achieved by interlinked rovers, robots and orbiting platforms, including with state-of-the-art quantum sensors. It would take thousands of astronauts to complete these tasks, a luxury we cannot afford at this time. Small crews of astronauts working with highly automated systems can get the work done for Earth. This suggests a prioritization away from water, particularly the major space agencies' current hyperfocus on ice trapped at the lunar poles. This ice would be important for astronauts living at the poles and for fuelling future solar system exploration but is not easily extracted and should not be the priority for Earth. Solar-implanted volatiles across the moon's surface are likely to meet the near-term needs for water for lunar energy and resource operations. 

Instead, I suggest we must be focused on the elements, which can be shipped from the moon to Earth. Ice water from the moon may fill future trillionaires' whiskey glasses, but what we all need are the abundant solar energies enabled by the moon, the rare Earth elements, platinum group and precious metals that can meet our needs — however selfish and short-sighted — to spare our planet and ensure our civilization's future, with the opportunity to shift toxic manufacturing off-Earth.

Critically, together with asteroid detection and deflection systems, these planetary system developments are important opportunities for international collaboration — it is by working together across national space agencies and through small and large enterprises alike that needed innovations can deliver on time a habitable future for our biosphere and hope for human civilization. Accelerating these endeavors will require hard creative thinking — finding equitable means to explore and exploit the resources of the moon might best be facilitated, for example, by an International Space Authority, based on the United Nations' current and quietly successful International Seabed Authority operations. Or, as recently proposed in conjunction with the Democracy Without Borders (opens in new tab) project, a democratically accountable UN space agency. This may seem a lofty and unreachable ask for a world embroiled in its first open fossil fuel war — but the alternative is that this may be our last planetary War, because we'll never again be able to fight another.

Are we alone in the galaxy, even our universe? Not likely, no. I'm happy enough to jump the gun, for all my colleagues' scientific discipline and rigor. With the magnificent James Webb Space Telescope's successful deployment, it is increasingly likely we'll find life around us, and if not, we should rigorously question our existence as likely simulants. Sentience and its pervasiveness are questions I explore through my interstellar dust research. What I hypothesize is that anything like the brilliance of the exploratory instincts we've developed should not be universally uncommon — and if unfound in exploratory probes, visitations, and waste elements abandoned in our own neighborhood, should raise the all-important question: What happened? Are we alone, because this is the great filter through which none can pass? Does the aggression inherent in launching rockets to orbit and their implicit power to destroy all that lies beneath doom a civilization to its own non-communicating end?

The evidence can be found within the dust right at our feet. The key challenge is, are we ready to act on it? We do not need outer space to be our final frontier — but we do need it to be the final front in the fossil fuel war. We can choose to end the war, by providing abundant resources and clean energy from the moon to Earth, and by moving our toxic industries away from our unique and precious biosphere.

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Lewis Pinault
Lewis Pinault

Lewis Pinault is a partner at Airbus Ventures, where he invests and serves as board director for space technology related startups across the globe. A NASA-trained meteoriticist, he is also a  researcher at University College London/Birkbeck's Centre for Planetary Sciences, presently collaborating with JAXA's Institute of Space and Astronautical Sciences.