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Mining on the moon

Mining on the moon
01 Jan
Tech companies are racing to land private spacecraft on the Moon, with a view to mining its surface over the coming decades. But is it even legal and what could it mean for those left behind?

Naveen Jain clears his throat ceremoniously. ‘We want to go to the Moon – not because it is easy, but because it is great business,’ he says, altering the words President Kennedy used to describe the first Moon landing. Jain is the co-founder and chairman of Moon Express, the first of two private companies with a license to leave Earth’s orbit, land on the Moon and return with bits of it. ‘When we get our Moon shot, it will really show what entrepreneurs are capable of,’ he says. They hope to launch by the end of this year.

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Moon Express is in the running for the Lunar XPrize, a $30million cash award for the first private company to land an unmanned craft on the Moon. Funded by Google, the prize aims to boost space travel and spur ‘the development of discovering and using space resources.’ It is a key part of a growing interest by billionaire companies in outer space fuels and minerals.

‘There are at least 50 private firms intent on figuring out how to extract resources from the Moon,’ says Julie Klinger, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University, ‘despite the fact that such activity would fly in the face of the UN Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967, which is signed by 130 countries and declares the Moon as “province of all mankind”.’ Moon mining for private gains, she explains, is potentially illegal.

How to govern the Moon has never been more hotly contested. As the hype reaches fever pitch, a growing group of geographers are also becoming louder about what space means to our own world. They intend to change the question from ‘could Moon mining be done?’ to questions like ‘should it?’, ‘on whose terms?’, and how it might impact issues such as inequality and sustainability. Between them and the entrepreneurs, it is becoming increasingly clear that the fight for the Moon is an ideological one, and it has everything to do with issues on Earth.


As trawler captain Zhan Qixiong headed towards a group of remote islands with his small fishing boat, he might well have expected trouble, but he would never have guessed the impact his journey would have on outer space.

It was the morning of 7 September 2010, and the almost-new Moon would have brought a particularly high tide. His destination – known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, or the Diaoyu Islands in China – are disputed territory between the two nations. As Zhan entered the contentious waters, he was confronted by the Japanese coastguard and rammed two of their vessels, supposedly in an attempt to escape. He was arrested by Japanese forces and held in custody for two weeks, causing public outcry in China.

This small event worsened the regional dispute between the two countries. Internationally, however, the incident began to warp into another narrative. Newspapers reported that China, which produced 97 per cent of the world’s supply of rare-earth minerals, was retaliating by blocking rare-earth exports to Japan. Despite both governments denying such a ban, the rumour was enough to stoke fears that China could use rare-earths as political leverage. To make matters worse, the incident occurred at a time China was announcing wider quota reductions – citing environmental concerns around its mines. In the confusion, the ‘rare-earth crisis’ was born.

‘Markets freaked out, and prices for some elements shot up 2,000 per cent in a short time,’ says Klinger, who sees the event as a key moment in this new ‘space race’. Though the shortage never materialised, the fear of it propelled the idea of Moon mining from the fringes of political discussion into the mainstream, she argues. Specifically, the price hike made rare-earths the target of the Lunar XPrize, with a number of the competitors stating that rare-earths were their end goal. In 2011, Jain spoke to the LA Times, stating ‘we know we can get these elements on the Moon’ as an alternative to being ‘held hostage’ by China’s monopoly.

But here’s the rub – rare-earths are not all that rare. While lunar missions have revealed deposits on the Moon, in fact, they are more abundant and accessible on Earth. Klinger notes that, ironically, the temporary price increase of 2,000 per cent is still several orders of magnitude below any hypothetical break-even price for lunar mining. ‘Besides,’ she says, ‘we only recycle one per cent of rare-earths that we already use.’

Though China holds the monopoly, it is not because of scarcity of rare-earths elsewhere, but because the nation produces the largest quantities at the cheapest price – owing to its low environmental regulations and labour rights. ‘Overall, we are so far from exhausting rare-earths that it doesn’t really merit calculation,’ she says. In spite of these realities, private companies such as Moon Express have made considerable headway in challenging international regulations concerning the ownership of outer space. Their attention has evolved from rare-earths to helium-3, a possible source of fuel if nuclear fission is ever achieved.

moon rocketSpaceX has so far been the highest profile name in the commercial exploration of space. Its reusable rocket landings are regularly streamed live for the world to see (even when they go wrong)


Rare-earths or not, the main issue is whether any outer space resources can be commodified by companies. The debate isn’t as simple as private versus public. In fact, there is a long and successful history of private-public cooperation in space enterprise, where companies have competed for contracts to transport cargo (called payloads) or produce technologies for national space agencies. The competition for these partnerships lowers the cost of now-routine processes such as launches, which in turn allows publicly-funded bodies such as NASA to direct more of its budget to deep space exploration.

However, as more private companies develop technology to reach outer space, the question remains – what are they entitled to take and sell once they get there? It is a question of particular interest to James Ormrod, Principal Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Brighton and co-editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space. His issue is not with mining the Moon per se. ‘I actually wouldn’t have a problem with resource extraction that transformed the surface in some way,’ he says, ‘just so long as it is done in a way where the profits are shared, and it truly benefits everyone – not just a select few.’

‘In 2015, President Obama signed the Commercial Space Act,’ says Jain. ‘It says a private company can own anything it brings back from a celestial body.’ The Space Act was an astounding victory for private companies with their eyes on the resources of nearby space objects such as the Moon and asteroids, or even further afield to Mars.

‘And that complies with the Outer Space Treaty,’ he adds. He might be wrong about that – the US’ Space Act has been called illegal by lawyers and policy makers across the globe. A key criticism is that it contradicts a key ideal of the Treaty, which says ‘outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.’ Though pro-space businesses argue that private mining doesn’t count as a ‘sovereign claim’, there’s still that thorny phrase ‘for the province of all mankind’.

The phrase’s ambiguity was clarified in the Moon Agreement of 1984, which dealt specifically with would-be Moon miners. It stated that non-governmental bodies (such as Moon Express) had no exclusive rights to resources on the Moon, and that a committee needed to be set up to oversee the ‘equitable sharing’ of the benefits from those resources. Its main priority was that outer space would not exacerbate inequality, and that the interests of developing countries would be given special consideration.

The Agreement entered into force with 11 signatories, however, it is significant that many poorer, less space-faring countries such as Peru, the Philippines and Uruguay signed, while the major space-farers of China, Russia, India and the US have not. Today, the 2015 Space Act directly challenges the UN Moon Agreement and the spirit of the OST, and ‘progressively there is movement away from peaceful sharing towards commodification of space,’ explains Ormrod. ‘Basically, towards a theme of whoever gets there first benefits the most.’

Jain has a different interpretation of ‘province’. He believes that world benefits will come from private innovation. He asks ‘what if we can use helium-3 and rare-earths for the benefit of humanity?’ I ask him, innovation aside, does he think resource extraction on the Moon could also potentially cause future issues, where less developed countries would protest being left behind in the space race? ‘Think about everything we fight over,’ he replies. ‘We fight over energy, we fight over water and we fight over land. All we have to do is look up and see those are in abundance. We are a pale blue dot in our own galaxy. There is nothing but energy and territory up in space. The true benefit would be to end scarcity here on Earth.’ It’s a seductive argument, one that is also used across the Lunar XPrize website, which describes the Moon as ‘a treasure chest of rare metals.’

Ormrod believes there is serious moral and technical flaw to this thinking. ‘There is something imaginary about the so-called abundance of outer space,’ he says. ‘The celestial bodies that are closer to Earth will be used first and they will be used by the developed world – space-faring nations and wealthy corporations.’

His experience with pro-space businesses is that, often, they refer to the ‘infinite’ to allow resource exploration to seem fair. ‘To say “there’s loads of space” to the developing world is really meaningless,’ he points out. ‘At what point do developing countries catch up?’

Klinger agrees: ‘We might think of these two things – Earth problems and outer space development – as separate issues, but it has everything to do with which children do well in school, which get into STEM programs, and which have access to the profits of outer space. If only some people can benefit from a favourable set of circumstances that enable them to send technology into space and profit off the resources, then we are looking at the Moon as another stage where social justice and injustice is enacted.’ For her, it’s critical to think about ‘whether we should extend inequality out of orbit’.

Since the Moon Agreement, there have been other attempts to show how space resources could redistribute wealth to developing countries. Most recently, the UN held a session in 2014, titled ‘Outer space benefits must not be allowed to widen the global gap between economic and social inequality’. It repeated the same concerns but did little to address the issue with more coherent legislation and regulation. Right now, private companies are doing more to shape future policy around the Moon and its resources than any other sector.

moon spacexElon Musk’s personal goal of sending people to colonise Mars using the SpaceX Dragon lander module is looking less like science fiction every day


Aren’t there more pressing issues we should be worrying about that are closer to home? As it happens, problems such as sustainability, environmental destruction and climate change are crucial to new outer space opportunities.

‘How you perceive outer space resources steer how you look after resources here,’ says Ormrod. ‘If we think there is more out there we might allow ourselves to be less sustainable.’ He believes that space exploration gives us even more reason to rethink our practices on Earth. ‘While we are still pulling out of climate treaties and allowing deforestation to go unchecked, perhaps drawing a line under space expansion for a minute might make us confront some of these issues and stop running away from them.’

For Jain, a large part of expanding entrepreneurial activity into space is to save us from those Earthly constraints. He feels it is the mission of entrepreneurs to innovate us away from climate change. ‘Using exponential technologies, entrepreneurs are solving problems that used to be the domain of the nation state,’ he argues. ‘For example, climate change is not being solved with treaties like the Paris Accord, it is being solved by people like Elon Musk, who has made an electric car company worth more than General Motors.’

Not only does he want to save us from ‘the mind-set of scarcity’, he wants to save us from extinction too. ‘It is only a matter of time before we are hit by a large asteroid,’ he says. It’s an anxiety he shares with Musk, who is using his private space company to fulfil his aim of colonising Mars. ‘I think, being on multiple celestial bodies will save humanity one day,’ says Jain, ‘and what better benefit to mankind is there than that?’ Klinger sees a paradox here: ‘When it comes to space, it is strange to challenge peaceful and international treaties – some of the most successful and most collaborative works of humanity – in a mission to save it.’


Clearly, there are two different visions for the Moon. One sees it as the obvious future for neoliberal capitalism, the other as being somewhere exempt from it. When Klinger talks about a ‘moral imperative’ to consider the future of non space-faring states, she is at odds with Jain’s claim that corporations are ‘going to make the nation state irrelevant’ in the long-term. It’s a bold statement, especially as private space enterprises still rely heavily on the state for authorisation, multi-million dollar contracts and scientific findings that locate deposits of helium-3 and rare-earth minerals on the Moon.

While the opposing ideas are forecasting decades ahead, Ormrod keeps drilling in the importance of today. ‘People should take the “province of all mankind” very seriously,’ he says. To stir up his students, he tells them ‘there aren’t many pieces of legislation in the world that say this huge thing belongs to all of us, belongs to all of you.’ The Moon is something everyone has in common, not just businessmen and politicians, and he feels we should constantly be asking ourselves ‘am I happy with this development?’

Klinger agrees. ‘We are at a crucial moment in which we get to condemn or condone the future of activity in space,’ she says. ‘Laws are being revisited and rewritten right now.’

If Moon Express or its competitors achieve their goals this year, it will be a significant milestone for the commodification of space. Perhaps it’s time, therefore, for a more public debate about where this is going? Although the Moon sits outside our atmosphere, big decisions about its future should not occur in a vacuum.

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