There’s iron in them-there hills: a composite image of the Moon indicating surface composition with blue showing titanium-rich areas, orange – lower titanium, and red indicating iron and titanium poor. Mare Tranquillitatis – The Sea of Tranquility – is the blue area on the right.
Could the next gold rush be a plunge into outer space – a lunar landing of robots to mine trillions of dollars worth of helium isotope or rare earth elements? Yes, says Angela Dennis, but asks: who will reap the spoils?
In July this year, a rare and beautiful event captured worldwide attention, leading people across four continents to gather together and turn their eyes to the night sky. This was the appearance of a Blood Moon, which occurs when the Moon is in the shadow of the Earth, and on this night, the eclipse was expected to be the longest of the century.
Your writer, along with many others, traipsed up a high hill to witness the spectacle. Though we were ultimately thwarted by the arrival of clouds, as we quietly watched and waited, we who had trekked to the high point felt a kinship – as fellow humans, sharing a sense of the smallness of ourselves amid the unreachable vastness of space. This feeling has perhaps been shared by humans since time immemorial.
Few in the crowd will have been aware that the innocent awe with which we viewed the heavens may come to seem quaint before long. Space technologies are emerging that are likely to dramatically alter the relationship that we have to our moon and to outer space. In particular, mining operations on outer space bodies are becoming a real possibility in the foreseeable future and with them the reverence for outer space could be replaced with an altogether more mercenary perspective.
Plans to mine on the moon and asteroids are underway, and are confronting scholars with challenging legal, economic, scientific, philosophical and ethical questions. Some of these questions are deceptively simple to express yet their answers may have wide-reaching consequences. They are:
• who (if anyone) owns the Moon and outer space?
• Who (if anyone) has the right to make economic use and derive economic benefit from them? And
• Who gets to decide?