Oxygen and water will be the initial aims for the pilot processing plant, which will explore ways to exploit the lunar surface in order to support human life. Iron and other rare earths could then be targeted as the operation expands.
Nasa estimates there are “hundreds of billions of dollars worth of untapped resources” on the Moon, with several other countries also exploring ways to mine them.
Speaking at a mining conference in Brisbane on Wednesday, Nasa’s Gerald Sanders said that the mining mission will begin soon when a test drill rig is sent to the Moon.
It is hoped that any progress towards mining the Moon’s resources will attract commercial interest that could help further cut costs.
“We are trying to invest in the exploration phase, understand the resources... to [lower] risk such that external investment makes sense that could lead to development and production,” said Dr Sanders, who works at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre, according to Reuters. “We are literally just scratching the surface.”
The Australian Space Agency plans to join Nasa’s mining endeavours, using a semi-autonomous rover to extract samples of lunar soil containing oxides by 2026.
These oxides could prove key to extracting oxygen gas from the Moon, which can be used by astronauts on the lunar surface to breathe.
“This is a key step towards establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon, as well as supporting future missions to Mars,” said Samuel Webster, an assistant director at the Australian Space Agency.
Earlier this year, Nasa scientists successfully extracted oxygen from simulated lunar soil within a vacuum environment for the first ever time.
A team at the space agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, used a high-powered laser to create a reaction that has the potential to produce significant quantities of oxygen from the lunar surface.
The harvesting technology was described by the researchers as “a big step for developing the architecture to build sustainable human bases on other planets”.
Nasa plans to return humans to the Moon for the first time in more than 50 years through its Artemis programme, with the first crewed missions expected to take place no earlier than 2024.
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