Research suggests the moon is rich in valuable resources that could change the way we live
MONTREAL:Canada could play a key role in a new international space race, with the next sprint to the moon gearing up as an extra-terrestrial gold rush.
Industry insiders will be watching closely as the heads of the world’s five biggest space agencies get together in Quebec City where the partners on the International Space Station will discuss more than just the future of the orbiting lab.
They will also address an idea gaining currency in business and scientific circles: that within human reach lies an unfathomable wealth of resources, some of them common on Earth and others so exotic that they could change the way we live.
Canada could figure prominently in any discussion about lunar exploration, with nearly one-quarter of the world’s top mining companies headquartered here and this country also known for robotics like the famous Canadarm.
Several countries, including China, have expressed a desire to start mining the moon’s resources. The mining industry is now waiting for the Canadian Space Agency(CSA) to make its intentions known, while the agency awaits direction from the federal government.
The CSA has already begun developing a number of prototype lunar rovers, in co-operation with NASA and several Canadian firms.
The testing of these prototypes on Earth, with special drills for excavating, has already begun and more tests are planned this summer in Hawaii. The next phase would involve building space-bound rovers—but the CSA can’t move forward without federal approval.
“They’re not headed for the moon, yet, although we have hopes for sure,” Iain Christie, the president of Neptec Design Group, maker of one of the excavation rovers. “We’re making, I think, a contribution to what Canada’s future space program might look like.”
Ottawa-based Neptec made the laser-camera system used to inspect for damage on the exterior of the recently retired U.S. space shuttles.
For Christie, Canada’s post-shuttle vocation is a no-brainer.
Of the top 40 global mining companies, with combined assets approaching $1 trillion, nine are Canadian, according to a 2011 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“On this planet, we are amongst the leading nations in figuring out how to extract resources from underneath the ground (and) we’re also one of the leading countries in space exploration,” he said.
Christie added that putting those two together makes a lot of sense: “It appears to me, at least from doing a quick survey of what other nations are doing, that it’s also a niche that other countries might be prepared to let Canada excel at.”
The moon is home to a number of compounds that are not readily available on Earth—like Helium-3, a gas that could potentially fuel future nuclear-fusion power plants. Such a development would hold drastic implications for human activity, beginning with energy consumption. The moon also contains gold, platinum-group elements and rare-earth elements.
Drilling for lunar resources may not be that far off. Some predict it could start by the end of this decade.
Since 2004, Neptec, NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT) have all been working on a drilling project, called RESOLVE, which involves water and ice on the Moon.
“It’s a very wet place and water is the Holy Grail for space exploration,” said Dale Boucher, a senior developer at NORCAT. “Water provides life support and, when you break it down into hydrogen and oxygen, it will provide fuel for ascent and even fuel for electric power generation, like in a fuel cell.”
With hydrogen, the moon could hold the energy necessary to launch flights into deeper space. Several countries are even looking beyond the moon for possible mining sites, to Mars and also to asteroids.