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Neil Reynolds

Many moons to go: the promise of lunar mining Add to ...

For $1-billion, Canada convened a summer weekend session of assorted world leaders who, as they left, produced an ambivalent communiqué of improbable historic importance. For $3.2-billion (U.S.), or a week's worth of such summitry, several of these same countries paid for the U.S.-European Cassini space mission to Saturn, a 3.5-billion kilometre, seven-year voyage that has revealed the secrets of Saturn's strange orange moon, Titan. It turns out that Titan is awash in liquid hydrocarbons: in oil. Indeed, it rains liquid hydrocarbons - and, in the moon's light gravity, each drop floats down from the clouds at roughly the speed that large snowflakes fall to Earth.

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With only one-fifth of this moon radar-scanned so far, scientists calculate that dozens of lunar lakes each hold more oil and gas than all of Earth's proven oil and gas reserves - and that Titan's equatorial sand dunes hold hundreds of times more coal than all of Earth's proven coal reserves. Titan is a vast reservoir of hydrocarbons. Talk about Peak Oil.

The Cassini mission is an example of intelligent government enterprise. Although the U.S. paid 80 per cent of the mission's costs ($2.6 billion), Europe participated financially and scientifically by providing the Huygens space probe - the "lander" that hitchhiked a ride aboard the Cassini spacecraft, launched from Cape Canaveral in 1997, which reached Saturn seven years later in 2004. The lander separated from the spacecraft on Christmas Eve, 2005, and touched down on the Titan surface three weeks later - immediately transmitting information back to Earth by telemetry.

The Cassini mission itself was supposed to end in 2008 after 50 "flybys," or circumnavigations of the moon, each successively closer to the Titan surface. So successful was the mission that the U.S. kept extending it. In June, the Cassini spacecraft made its 70th flyby. Now NASA has extended it again - through 2017 - and has authorized another 155 flybys.

Writing in 2008, physicist Ralph D. Lorenz described in scientific journals the terrain of Titan (temperature: minus 179 degrees Celsius) as confirmed by the mission's radar-imaging technology. "Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material," he said. "It's a great factory of organic chemicals." It doesn't rain methane often, he said, but it makes up for it with massive once-in-a-century downpours.

New Scientist magazine has reported that Cassini mission data make a circumstantial case for a primitive life form on Titan: a microbe that lives in lakes of liquid methane, that breathes hydrogen, that eats acetylene - and that manufactures methane as a waste product. The profound differences with Earth notwithstanding, Dr. Lorenz has called Titan "the most Earth-like body in our solar system," and has predicted that it will be "a key target" for future space exploration.

We don't need to travel billions of kilometres, however, to find a lunar landscape with abundant energy resources. Our own moon is a mere 384,000 kilometres away, four days by shuttle - less time than it takes to truck grapes from California to Toronto. China, for one, now appears to understand the strategic importance of Earth's moon: Chinese geochemist Ouyang Ziyuan, director of China's Lunar Exploration Program, says that a principal goal of China's space program is the mining of Helium-3, a non-radioactive isotope scarce on Earth but relatively plentiful on the moon.

By some calculations (including China's), a four-ton shuttle load of lunar Helium-3 per week would theoretically provide enough safe nuclear-fusion energy to meet the needs of the entire world. (The only practical Earth source for Helium-3 is apparently obsolete nuclear warheads.) Russian scientists have advanced similar analysis - suggesting that lunar mining could be under way by 2020, provided governments invested $6-billion in up-front funding.

Only Americans - 12 of them - have walked on the moon. U.S. astronaut Harrison Schmitt, a geologist, was the last - in 1972. Mr. Schmitt champions lunar mining of Helium-3 and puts the up-front cost at $15-billion, or (he says) roughly the cost of building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

U.S. President Barack Obama cancelled the U.S. space shuttle program, reversing president George W. Bush's policy that NASA "should extend a human presence across our solar system." He has not, however, ended all lunar exploration. NASA will still attempt to land robotic "prospectors" on the moon within the next four years to test technologies (in NASA's words) for "in-situ resource utilization." In other words, for mining.

Mr. Schmitt says that private-sector investors are now prepared to do the job of mining the moon by themselves. (By some calculations, a ton of Helium-3, delivered to Earth by shuttle, would be worth a billion dollars - a sum the G20 summit again immediately evokes.) But, independent of commerce, human destiny compels public investment, too. As the poet e.e. cummings once emphatically put it, "listen: there's a hell of a good universe next door - let's go."


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