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The ESA Is Taking Steps to Mine Moon Dust

Popular Mechanics logo Popular Mechanics 1/27/2019 David Grossman
Lunar regolith has a potential energy source, and the ESA is trying to get it by 2025. © PTScientists Lunar regolith has a potential energy source, and the ESA is trying to get it by 2025.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has taken the first of many steps that would be needed to extract resources like oxygen and water from the moon. It's signed a one-year contract with Europe’s largest launch services provider and former lunar XPRIZE competitor to study the feasibility of mining the moon.

The hypothetical mission would launch by 2025 and focus on lunar regolith, which is a fancy name for lunar soil. While lunar soil has no organic content, it does contain molecular oxygen and water. It also has helium-3, an isotope that has the potential to be a future energy source. The ESA's website says that helium-3 "could provide safer nuclear energy in a fusion reactor, since it is not radioactive and would not produce dangerous waste products."

The mission would launch on what's being called an Ariane 64, a version of the still-hypothetical launch vehicle Ariane 6 built by ArianeGroup. While the Ariane 6 gets its name from following the Ariane 5, the 64 comes from this version have four strap-on boosters.

André-Hubert Roussel, CEO of ArianeGroup, said in a press statement that the study is “an opportunity to recall the ability of Ariane 64 to carry out Moon missions for its institutional customers, with a payload capacity of up to 8.5 metric tons. In this year, marking the fiftieth anniversary of Man’s first steps on the Moon, ArianeGroup will thus support all current and future European projects, in line with its mission to guarantee independent, sovereign access to space for Europe."

Also involved in the study will be former Google Lunar XPRIZE competitor PTScientists. While the Ariana 64 will be the launch vehicle, the Berlin-based space startup will build a lunar lander for the mission. The lander contract is a big one for PTScientists, which failed to make the final cut in the Lunar XPRIZE competition (the contest ultimately ended without a winner). The company is also building a lunar lander for corporate sponsors including Audi, Vodafone and Red Bull.

“We are very pleased with the confidence placed in us by the European Space Agency," said Robert Boehme, CEO and founder of PTScientists, in a press statement.

Lunar soil has a lot of potential-some think its possible to turn it into a 3D-printing material and organically build structures with it. However, it does have it limits. Breathing it in any atmosphere would be horrible for human lungs.

Source: MIT Technology Review

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