[Image above] Credit: Nigel Howe; Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Over fifty years ago, NASA astronauts made history when they first stepped onto the moon.

Fast forward to today, and the landscape of space travel is changing drastically. Now instead of government-funded missions fueled by discovery and national pride, a crop of private companies are emerging with missions of returning to the moon—but this time, to exploit its resources with the hopes of planet-sized profits.

The United States passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015, making it legal for companies to own and sell resources they extract from space, including the moon and asteroids. 

And a U.S. presidential memorandum signed into policy in 2017, Space Policy Directive 1, established that “the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations…”

A whole slate of startup companies now seem eager to make that directive a reality by raising millions of dollars in funding to support their space missions.

For example, a company called Moon Express raised more than $65 million from big-time investors to support its mission “to redefine possible by returning to the Moon and unlocking its mysteries and resources for the benefit of humanity.”

Those resources include water, helium, and rare earth elements—water to not only support life but also to generate rocket fuel from its constituent oxygen and hydrogen molecules; helium that could be used for nuclear fusion; and rare earths of all kinds for energy and tech applications.

Jeff Bezo’s company Blue Origin reportedly secured $13 million in funding to build lunar landers that can deliver 6.5 metric tons of payload to the moon’s surface “to save earth.” And Japanese company ispace now has more than $90 million to “begin the development of [a] lunar lander to establish a flexible and regular lunar transportation system, and lead the exploration and development of lunar surface through micro-robotic systems,” according to the company’s founder Takeshi Hakamada.

Plus, “Two startups called Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries raised $50.3 and $3.5m for space mining before they were acquired by large companies (although they were focused more on asteroid mining than moon mining),” according to an article on The Hustle.

With all these investments to develop serious high-tech robotics and automation, the moon may actually be minable, and soon. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says that mining rare earth elements (REE) from the moon is possible “this century,” according to a CNBC article.

Getting these metals from the moon in the decades ahead is becoming realistic because of “the investments that the space community is making,” Bridenstine says. He called out Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Sir Richard Branson by name in this regard, praising the progress their funds made. Bezos, Musk, and Branson are the founders of space companies Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit, respectively.

“Billionaires are actually investing in space and exploration, and NASA can benefit in that,” Bridenstine says. “We have commercial partners that didn’t exist historically, so they can help offset the cost. They’re making their own investments, because they want customers that are not necessarily NASA.”

Yet despite all this activity and investment, the biggest question remains unanswered—is the moon even minable for REE?

“Yes, we know there are local concentrations of REE on the moon,” Carle Pieters, a leading planetary scientist at Brown University, says in a Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute article. “We also know from the returned samples that we have not sampled these REE concentrations directly, but can readily detect them along a mixing line with many of the samples we do have.”

However, the moon’s small, local deposits of REE were concentrated by different processes than we’re familiar with here on earth. On the moon, “early events disrupted and substantially reorganized that process in ways we are still trying to decipher,” Pieters says in the article.

That may mean that the methods we developed on earth to mine, separate, extract, and purify REEs may not work on the moon.

“It’s worth noting that the Moon may not be a particularly suitable destination for mining other valuable metals such as gold, platinum or rare earth elements. This is because of the process of differentiation, in which relatively heavy materials sink and lighter materials rise when a planetary body is partially or almost fully molten,” planetary geologist Paul Byrne explains in an article on The Conversation.

Byrne argues these valuable deposits are likely buried deep within the moon (in the mantle or even the core), which would make mining and extraction difficult.

Even if mining the lunar landscape is feasible, another remaining challenge will be how to transport the resources back to earth—one of the biggest challenges and most expensive parts of space travel is transportation, explains Angel Abbud-Madrid, Director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines, in a Wired video. So shuttling payloads of resources across space isn’t likely to be an effective endeavor.

But feasibility questions certainly are not stopping these space startups.

If the concept of mining the moon did not sound science-fiction enough already, a company called OffWorld is developing a fleet of autonomous robots that uses on-board solar panels and machine learning to collectively mine materials and build future infrastructure on the moon. 

“To say that OffWorld’s dream is an ambitious one is to put it mildly. The company envisions a future in which millions of smart robots work together using swarm intelligence ‘on and offworld’ to build the infrastructure of tomorrow. Long term, they even imagine the possibility of using the robots to mine for materials which could be used to build new chips ‘with zero reliance on terrestrial supply,’” according to a Digital Trends article.

Who knows—could this be the second giant leap for mankind?