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International cooperation in lunar exploration could help identify what lunar resources, if any, are truly feasible to support activities in space or on Earth. (credit: Anna Nesterova/Alliance for Space Development)

The International Lunar Decade: A strategy for sustainable development


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The Moon is often referred to as the Eight Continent, a chunk of the Earth ejected as a result of a collision of the primeval Earth. The material content of the Moon is largely similar to Earth, raising the question about the value of lunar resources if the same stuff exists on Earth. Part of the value of lunar resources is that they are outside of the Earth’s gravity well and that the cost of launch from Earth could be avoided, if uses can be developed for the materials in space.

A good starting point would be an exercise similar to the International Geophysical Year to conduct a thorough exploration of the Moon and its subsurface.

Lunar water is one high-profile example. NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) spectrometer aboard the Chandrayaan-1 probe detected indications of water ice at the lunar poles that were later confirmed in 2018. If lunar water could be mined and shipped to the point of use at lower cost than from Earth, a business case could possibly emerge. More recently, a large mass anomaly was discovered under the Aitken basin that is comparable in size to the Psyche metallic asteroid. There may be valuable metallic deposits underlying other large craters on Moon. While the Moon has been surveyed for decades, very little is known about the material content of the Moon, particularly the subsurface of the Moon.

Let’s consider two scenarios for lunar development:

  1. Lunar resources become competitive for use on Earth. The implication here is lunar resources would directly contribute to sustainable development on Earth by reducing the need for mining and heavy manufacturing and infusing new sources of wealth.
  2. The Moon becomes a platform to enable the expansion of humankind into the Solar System. Here, such resources enable sustainable development for humankind for centuries to come.

If the mass anomaly discovered underlying the Aitken Basin contains gold and/or other valuable materials, then lunar resources could become competitive for use on Earth. This could result in a Moon Rush with investors rushing in to position themselves for extraordinary wealth. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 led to the Gold Rush (1848–1855) and explosive population growth that was enabled in part by the technology of the railroad. California’s Gold Rush and the surge in population led to the emergence of a sustainable high-growth economy in California. A similar scenario is plausible for the Moon leading to the Moon becoming a platform for the expansion of humankind into the solar system.

A good starting point would be an exercise similar to the International Geophysical Year to conduct a thorough exploration of the Moon and its subsurface. Let’s call this the “Exploration Phase.” Much could be learned in five years if all countries with the capacity to reach the Moon participated. Exploration of the Aitken Basin mass anomaly may at some point require new technology, such as for deep penetration below the lunar surface to verify the material composition and explore the potential to mine the resource. If knowledge of discoveries were shared by all countries, the scale of the opportunities could be identified earlier and financing could be marshalled more rapidly to exploit the resource.

If the Exploration Phase does not identify lunar materials potentially competitive on Earth, then lunar development would depend on uses for lunar materials in outer space. Lunar water has become a hot topic as a potential source of rocket fuel, water, and oxygen for life support in space missions, and other uses. Lunar water has many unknowns and it may not be competitive with water launched from Earth for many years unless uses in space are significantly expanded.

Lunar materials that can be processed with relatively simple processes, such as basalt fiber and e-glass from anorthosite, can be used to construct satellites serving Earth as well as to construct space stations, space hotels, fuel depots, spacecraft, and facilities and infrastructure on the Moon. Lunar regolith can be processed into soil to grow food and to develop self-renewing, sustainable ecosystems for space facilities. Over the course of a decade the Moon could be thoroughly explored to identify long-term resource potential and to pilot technologies for mining and use of lunar resources. If all countries have the opportunity to participate in the spirit of Article I of the Outer Space Treaty, then more knowledge and technology will be developed than if only the leading spacefaring countries participate. Furthermore, more participants offer greater opportunities to increase launch rates and to build shared infrastructure to reduce costs more rapidly. A framework for international cooperation in intensive lunar exploration and lunar development is needed to enable more countries to participate irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.

Lunar resource exploration is an urgent matter

Climate change, combined with continued global population increase to nearly 10 billion people by 2050 from 7.7 billion in 2019, represents extraordinary stress on the environment and threatens the survival of civilization. Demonstration of the feasibility of large-scale use of lunar resources would open new pathways to combat climate change and to enable continued sustainable development for centuries to come. Lunar resources can enable an open future for humankind with prospects for democratic governance and individual freedoms rather than a closed future and authoritarian rule in a resource-limited world.

The extraordinary promise of large-scale use of lunar resources realized thru international cooperation and rules-based competition calls for urgent attention by the UN General Assembly.

If lunar materials such as platinum group metals or rare Earth materials were to be discovered in large quantities that are economically exploitable, then such materials could be potentially competitive for uses on Earth. This could open the prospect of moving heavy, energy-intensive industries to outer space to safeguard the biosphere of Earth and to and combat climate change. Intensive exploration of the Moon may lead to the discovery of valuable resources under the Aitken Basin and elsewhere below the surface of the Moon.

Use of lunar resources can transform prospects for humankind not just in economic development terms. A frontier of new astronomical research would be opened with observatories on the lunar farside. Sustainable operations on the Moon and in cislunar space could enable more effective planetary defence against asteroid impact than may be possible from Earth-launched defences. Recovery from coronal mass ejections (CME)[1] events could be accelerate with radiation-shielded communications facilities away from the Earth that could be moved to geosynchronous orbit to enable rapid restoration of communications.

The extraordinary promise of large-scale use of lunar resources realized thru international cooperation and rules-based competition calls for urgent attention by the UN General Assembly. Present trends in a resource limited work increasingly favour the rule of the strongest and destabilization of national conflict carried into outer space. The General Assembly needs to call for urgent, coordinated international cooperation to realize the promise of lunar resources for humankind.

The International Lunar Decade

The International Lunar Decade (ILD) is proposed as a framework for international cooperation in lunar exploration and development from 2021 through 2030 to establish the technical, economic, and political feasibility of industrial development of the Moon as a source of resources for economic expansion of humankind into the solar system. Resources in outer space are practically boundless compared to present human needs, bounded by the finite resources of the Earth with its delicately balanced biosphere that is now under great stress from industrial civilization. The UN has adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to address the challenge of population growth coupled with growing needs of people. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is formulating a plan for Space Agenda 2030 to address the contribution of uses of outer space to address the SDG with the theme of “Space as the driver of sustainable development,” or sometimes stated as “Space as the driver of world peace.” COPOUS will submit its plan for approval by the UN General Assembly at its 2020 session to guide UN space activities in the 2021–2030 period.

The ILD Working Group, formed in November 2014, has sought to interest COPUOS and other major international organizations to sponsor ILD, just as the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) sponsored the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957–58. The decision by COPUOS at its session in 2018 to advance Space Agenda 2030 opens the opportunity for COPUOS to consider sponsoring a program for global cooperation in lunar exploration and development as a means to advance long term sustainable development for humankind in outer space as well as on Earth. Little time remains to include ILD as an element of Space Agenda 2030 prior to the vote by the General Assembly in 2020.

This paper is an argument to include ILD within the UN’s Space Agenda 2030 based on the logic that lunar development contributes to sustainable development on Earth and that development of the capacity to use the resources of the Moon can unlock the potential to use resources elsewhere in the solar system to enable sustainable development of civilization for centuries to come while safeguarding the Earth’s biosphere. The capacity to sustainably use the resources of the solar system enables human settlement beyond the Earth. Rather than a win-lose future with threats of conflict over the limited resources of the Earth, space settlement creates an open future with widening prospects for people from all countries, irrespective of their present economic or scientific development. The ILD is intended to facilitate international cooperation in lunar exploration, scientific research, technology development, and joint financing to enable rules-based competition among countries and firms to create the foundations for an open future for humankind thru lunar development.

Presentations on ILD have been made to COPUOS in 2007,[2] 2016,[3] 2017,[4] and in 2018.[5] COPUOS will listen to ideas from non-government and scientific organizations, but only proposals from member states of COPUOS can be acted on by COPUOS. Thus far, no member state of COPUOS has been prepared to champion ILD.

At present no business case exists for the use of lunar resources.

The US, China, India, ESA and its member states, Japan, and a few other nations have the capacity to reach the Moon. They do not have compelling reasons to advance the interests of less powerful states relative to lunar development. The UN’s Space Agenda 2030 addresses the interests and responsibilities of all states regardless of their present capabilities to explore and use outer space. Thus far, Space Agenda 2030 addresses satellite services and related activities of direct benefit to developing countries. Inclusion of ILD within Space Agenda 2030 would create opportunities for developing countries to take part in lunar exploration and development together with leading spacefaring countries to the benefit of all countries both advanced and developing. The ILD framework for international cooperation in lunar exploration and development does not impose a master plan. Rather, it creates a diverse range of opportunities that companies, research organizations, and NGOs from different countries can pursue based on their own interests and level of national support as well as engagement with partners that enhance and amplify each other’s contributions.

Challenges of lunar development

Lunar exploration is expensive and requires deep and broad capabilities in many fields of science and technology. Thus far only the US has had the financial and technical capacity to land astronauts on the Moon and return them to the Earth. The last human mission to the Moon was in December 1972. Much has been learned about the Moon in the intervening decades thru the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), probes like Smart-1, and rovers. Many missions are planned in the coming decade, including a crewed landing by the US in 2024 and possibly by China and other countries later.

A sustainable presence on the Moon requires, at a minimum, use of lunar resources to provide the materials used to produce food, atmosphere, water, bulk construction materials, and other items that otherwise would need to be shipped from the gravity well of the Earth to the Moon at great cost.[6]

At present no business case exists for the use of lunar resources. Identical materials can be recovered on Earth at much lower cost without going to the Moon. The one known material on the Moon potentially valuable on Earth is helium-3, an isotope of helium with only one neutron that, theoretically, may have advantages in fusion energy. Helium-3 is more abundant on the Moon than on Earth as a result of lunar regolith being impacted by cosmic rays and solar wind over billions of years. However, over 150 tonnes of regolith must be processed to obtain one gram of helium-3. India, China, and Russia have shown interest in lunar helium-3, but prospects for use prior to 2040 are slim.

New uses for lunar materials need to be demonstrated in outer space, starting with orbits near the Earth. However, even if the use of lunar material is in outer space, value must be created for governments or investors on Earth. One goal of the ILD is to demonstrate that enough value can result from use of lunar resources in the long term to justify the large investments that will be required. Abundant resources are clearly present on the Moon, but there is no simple pathway to demonstrate that these resources will have enough value to warrant the investments required.

Since the materials that make up the Moon appear to be similar to materials on Earth, technical feasibility of production processes can be established allowing for differences that include the lower gravity of the Moon. The Moon’s surface is open to the vacuum of space and subject to solar and cosmic radiation without the protection of the Earth’s magnetosphere and atmosphere. Economic feasibility presents the additional challenges of demonstrating that markets can be created for lunar resources and the products that can be produced from them will find customers willing to pay for them. Lunar water has been identified as a priority based on the hope that water can be recovered from polar regions of the Moon to generate returns that can justify the investment. The presence of water has been detected and guesses have been made about the possible size of water deposits, but there is insufficient data about the water deposits to estimate recovery costs with a degree of confidence. Additional uncertainties about launch costs and demand for lunar water indicate that the business case cannot be closed despite an excellent analysis involving a large team of recognized experts.[7]

Strategic basket of materials to diversify risk and multiply paths to success

To establish economic feasibility of sustainable lunar development the ILD calls for considering a strategic basket of lunar materials to diversify risk of failure and create multiple paths for success. This is similar to financial investments, where a diverse portfolio lowers overall risk and increases prospects for success. Candidates for the strategic basket of lunar materials would have uses that demonstrate potential for long-term economic returns even if near term uses may be limited. The strategic basket will be resources that are abundant on the Moon and recoverable with well-understood processes for which plausible markets can be identified that can be developed. Working groups of experts can identify the materials in the strategic basket, setting forth phases for their development and commercialization within the framework of international cooperation.

The earlier that profitability for some operations on the Moon can be demonstrated the stronger will be the case for continued government support of the investments required.

Nothing has yet been mined from the Moon and there is no knowledge about what recovery processes might work in low-gravity vacuum conditions. Identified uses, and estimates of requirements to develop the processes and markets and value chains that need to be created, can be developed. Numerous attempts at developing many different materials under lunar conditions can generate knowledge about what has worked and what has failed. It is too early to focus on lunar water as the priority project. What’s needed at this stage is a multifaceted program of lunar exploration to build up a knowledge base of the Moon and its resources as a source and platform for industrial development for sustainable development on Earth and for expansion into the solar system.

Several lunar materials show early promise for inclusion in the strategic basket. One example is lunar basalt fiber[8] that has multiple potential uses in LEO manufacturing, and which may complement lunar water extraction when used as a thermal barrier shield for payloads launched from the Moon to LEO. Several other high potential materials have been proposed which working groups could include in the strategic basket to diversify risk and broaden opportunities for engagement by research organizations as well as space entrepreneurs. Among many other candidate materials could e-glass production from lunar anorthosite with a process similar to lunar basalt fiber; silicon for solar cells fabricated from lunar regolith, as well as wild cards with materials like lunar ilmenite[9] that may produce radiation resistant wide bandgap semiconductors suitable for solar cells and space electronics.

The recent discovery of a large mass anomaly at the South Pole Aitken Basin suggests that a large metallic remnant of an asteroid may exist below the surface. Unlike asteroids, which are effectively inaccessible for decades, such mineral wealth on the Moon could provide resources for sustainable development on the Earth as well as in outer space. There may be other such opportunities on the Moon that intensive exploration and research over a decade involving research teams from dozens of countries could open a future for sustainable development for centuries to come.

Recovery of lunar resources has to be potentially profitable at levels of risk that satisfy investor requirements within a defined time horizon. No lunar operation is expected to generate profits by 2030 that do not depend on government support. However, the investments required will be very large and public support for lunar development will have to be weighed against other priorities facing the US and other spacefaring countries. We assume that profitable recovery of a strategic basket of lunar resources needs to be demonstratable before 2040 to assure that public subsidies for lunar development will not be needed indefinitely and to attract major private investment. The earlier that profitability for some operations on the Moon can be demonstrated the stronger will be the case for continued government support of the investments required.

Government support depends significantly upon public support. The ILD effort calls for a global initiative to inform, advocate, for and engage the public, particularly students, in lunar exploration and development. As lunar development and related R&D advances, new specialties will be created and tens of thousands of new jobs will open. Students will be attracted to pursue the new careers based on the extraordinary opportunities presented by lunar exploration and development.

The ILD framework is being designed to demonstrate technical and economic feasibility of indefinitely sustainable industrial activities on the Moon by the end of ILD decade in 2030. Working groups of experts need to be established to define the key elements of the ILD process and the framework for international cooperation within which this process will be conducted as well as the public outreach at national levels and globally to maintain necessary public support over the decade of the ILD.

To achieve this result, both major spacefaring countries and developing nations must commit to ILD. The framework for international cooperation called for by ILD will help to accelerate the progress of the spacefaring countries while engaging and creating opportunities for developing countries. Given that economic feasibility of lunar development has been demonstrated, specific business opportunities will cascade, driving waves of other opportunities benefiting from the knowledge and technologies developed in each successive wave. Demonstration of economic feasibility will build the case for lunar-related investment funds, some crossing national borders and furthering international cooperation and others stimulating lunar business development by companies from specific countries. Economic feasibility of lunar development will trigger a large investment boom that lifts the values of all space-related business. Sound business cases will emerge for long-term investments in lunar and cislunar commercial activity including mining and manufacturing, assembly operations in LEO for spacecraft, tourism, logistics, space-based solar power, and more.

The ILD framework is intended to enable leading countries in space to advance more rapidly while creating opportunities for smaller and less developed countries to participate and to develop capabilities to derive benefits from the Earth-Moon economy that will emerge as use is made of lunar resources to enable sustainable presence on the Moon.

Lunar development will require large investment for decades to come. That is why it is imperative to develop ways to reduce costs and risks thru international cooperation in shared infrastructure, program operation, and strategic coordination. Concurrently, the ILD framework needs to allow and even encourage productive rules-based competition between teams, companies, and states to drive innovation, reduce costs, and speed up development.

ILD is inspired by the International Geophysical Year.

IGY[10] engaged tens of thousands of scientists from 67 countries to study the Earth as a total physical system. The first satellites were launched by the USSR and the US as part of IGY, marking the dawn of the Space Age. ILD can mark not only the dawn of the “Solar System Age” it can also enable sustainable development on Earth by lessening use of Earth’s resources and opening the opportunity for human settlements beyond the Earth.

The US has proposed a manned landing at the South Pole by 2024. China has also made a strategic commitment to sustainable operations on the Moon. India, the EU, Japan, Brazil, Korea, and even small states like Israel are targeting the Moon. The cost to reach Earth orbit and the Moon is on a downward trend that would be accelerated by a decade-long global program for lunar exploration and development. As costs decline, the range of opportunities for both research and private investment will expand.

Barriers to sustained operations on the Moon

There is no international agreement on exploitation of lunar resources and of governance of operations on the Moon. The Hague Space Resources Governance Working Group is addressing this challenge, but it is an informal body without legal standing. UN COPUOS offers a forum for discussion of space policy issues at a general level. States with projects planned on the Moon will need to coordinate their activities which may lead to agreements among the states involved emerging as customary law governing cooperative activities on the Moon and in cislunar space.

There is no agreed to vision for long-term industrial development of the Moon and the emergence of an Earth-Moon economy does not exist. This constrains long-term investments.

The Moon Treaty established general principles governing use of lunar resources in Article 11, paragraph 7.[11]] Similar principles are present in the The Hague working group’s principles of the “Draft Building Blocks for the Development of an International Framework on Space Resources.”[12] Given that spacefaring countries would agree to use the “International regime to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the moon” referenced in Article 11, paragraph 5, of the Moon Treaty, then the conference of states parties defined by Article 18 of the Treaty could be used to negotiate the rules governing use of lunar resources. No rules for such a conference are specified in Article 18. The conference would be of States Parties to the Treaty, which could include states that are not parties depending on how the rules would be set. It would not include all present members of UN COPUOS and would not be bound by the decision rules of COPUOS unless the parties participating agreed to adopt such rules. Interpretation of Article 11, paragraph 1, “The moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind” would be totally up to the participants in the conference. There is no agreed to interpretation of the meaning of “common heritage of mankind”.

There is no agreed to vision for long-term industrial development of the Moon and the emergence of an Earth-Moon economy does not exist. This constrains long-term investments. Such a vision can be developed thru a series of international conferences.

Low frequency of launch and use is the largest factor in high costs. Frequency of launch must be increased to drive down costs. Increasing the number of countries, firms and research organizations with projects on the Moon will increase frequency of launch, drive down costs and lower risks.

Costs to reach and operate on the Moon remain very large, discouraging planning of projects that could rapidly become feasible given greater use. The ILD framework aimed at creating opportunities for long-term sustainable development on the Moon would serve to strengthen the case for individual projects.

Infrastructure does not exist that could reduce costs and risks for all participants and drive up rates of use. Examples of possible infrastructure:

  • Fuel depots in Earth orbits, Earth-Moon Lagrange points, and lunar orbits
  • Lunar spaceports to reduce costs and risks
  • Gateways/platforms in lunar orbit
  • Lunar power utility to enable projects to plug-in and operate thru the lunar night.[13]

Progress towards the ILD

The ILD Working Group has proposed ILD to COSPAR and other international organizations. Key is sponsorship by the UN and acceptance by UN COPUOS and inclusion in the Space Agenda 2030 that will be approved by the General Assembly in 2020. The next step is to convince at least one member-state of UN COPUOS to propose inclusion of ILD as part of Space Agenda 2030.

UN COPUOS is a forum for discussion and negotiation of space policy. If ILD were to be included as part of Space Agenda 2030, an organization would need to be either formed or designated to serve as the secretariat for the ILD decade. In the case of IGY, the ICSU established a special committee, the CSAGI, to serve as secretariat.[14] The ILD secretariat will need to have fundraising capacity to lessen dependence on UN budgeted resources and to speed up ramp up of ILD. An independent organization recognized in the field of lunar development that is not bound to any state or political point of view could serve if recognized as such by the UN General Assembly resolution authorizing ILD. The International Year of Light (IYL), formed as an initiative of UNESCO, selected the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (UNESCO-ICTP). Sponsorships by major firms and international research organizations has been key to the success of IYL. Given significant financial backing from countries, firms, and international organizations as well as foundations and public donations an organization like the Moon Village Association, which addresses many of the issues raised by ILD, could serve as the secretariat for ILD.

Lunar exploration and development addresses multiple critical concerns of the UN. Urgent action is needed by UN COPUOS to raise the International Lunar Decade to the attention of the General Assembly.

Endnotes

  1. Joseph N. Pelson. “The importance of defense against coming solar weather calamities”, SpaceNews, November 7, 2016.
  2. L. Friedman, W. T. Huntress, Jr. 2007 “The International Lunar Decade”
  3. David Dunlop 2016 “The International Lunar Decade”
  4. David Dunlop 2017 “Using The Framework of International Organizations to Develop an International Lunar Decade Campaign”.
  5. David Dunlop 2018 “Looking Forward to Cislunar Development Challenges in an International Lunar Decade”.
  6. Astrobotic commercial rates are $1.2 million per kg for small deliveries. Even if costs could be reduced by two orders of magniture to $12,000 per kg this would constrain mission duration.
  7. Commercial Lunar Propellant Architecture.
  8. Michael Turner 2018 “A rotating, tapered, balanced sling launcher on the Moon made of lunar regolith basalt fiber”.
  9. “Ilmenite as a dual-use material” Dual-Use Space Technology Transfer Conference and Exhibition; p. 347-353; Volume 1; NASA-CP-3263-Vol-1
  10. Fae L. Korsmo. “The Genesis of the International Geophysical Year”.
  11. 7. The main purposes of the international regime to be established shall include: (a) The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the moon; (b) The rational management of those resources; (c) The expansion of opportunities in the use of those resources; (d) An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the moon, shall be given special consideration.
  12. See page 9, Section 4., Principles
  13. See: “The lunar electrical power utility”, The Space Review, Novemebr 9, 2015; and “Space power: a timely answer to Europe’s energy challenge”, The Space Review, July 9, 2018.
  14. CSAGI; the initials are taken from the French name Comité Spécial de l'Année Géophysique Internationale.

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