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US-China space race for moon mining heats up

The race for space mining is becoming even more competitive as China, the United States and other countries work to expand mining and production of rare earth elements.

“We see China continuing to press the accelerator,” said Michael Usowski, senior defense intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Space Counterspace Office. “They want to be the nation that sets the norms in space.”

American scientists have been studying the moon for decades and have continued to stay ahead of their competitors when it comes to exploring the moon’s surface. The United States is the only country to land humans on the moon for exploration. During the Apollo 11 mission, controllers warned the astronauts to “watch out for a cute girl with a big rabbit.” He may have been hinting at China’s space ambitions when he mentioned Chang’e. This is the name of a Chinese folk tale about a moon goddess who flies to the moon with a rabbit. It is also the name of China’s moon exploration program.

In 2013, China made its first successful soft landing on the moon and launched its lunar rover, the Jade Rabbit. This was the first landing in about 37 years. Despite the early US advantage, NASA has not performed a soft landing since the last Apollo mission in 1972.

“This is another reason why we should never leave certain areas, whether it’s a poor country in Africa or the moon,” Democratic Sen. Kevin Cramer said. “When we abandon a region, we open it up for bad actors like China to take advantage of. China will intervene wherever they can.” [and] If there are rules, play by different rules. ”

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Defense Intelligence Agency officials say establishing a lunar base is key to studying the moon’s minerals. (Sawmyabrata Roy/Majority World/Universal Images Group)

China has launched five Chang’e missions. The fourth spacecraft landed on the far side of the moon for the first time. The latest mission in 2020 returned lunar samples. Next year, the two previous missions will be combined to become the first country to bring back samples from the other side. Despite these advances, defense intelligence officials say China likely has no more information about the moon’s composition than the United States already has.

“Many of the drones we’ve flown in the past have certainly found water at the lunar poles, particularly the lunar south pole,” said Defense Intelligence Agency Director John Hughes. of space and counter space. “It’s been a while, but even if it’s an unmanned operation, it’s true. I can’t say they know any more than we do.”

From 1969 to 1972, the Apollo missions returned more than 800 pounds of lunar samples. These contained trace amounts of rare earth elements. Scientists studying these samples and images from the spacecraft believe these minerals are likely even rarer on the moon. However, experts agree that knowing the true geological composition requires a physical presence.

“One of the first things we do when we set up a moon base, whether it’s us or the Chinese, is to really assess what’s going to be there,” Hughes said. “We’ve completed the remote sensing part. Like the Chinese, we’ve brought back material from the moon. So one of the first things is, let’s build a self-sustaining lunar base. And we better understand what they mean.” What minerals, what are the minerals that can be used on the moon or that can be brought back to Earth in some way to be used more effectively? Is it? ”

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China's Chang'e 5 reentry capsule

A visitor looks at the Chang’e 5 reentry capsule during the China Space Day exhibition on April 24, 2023 in Hefei, China. (Zhang Yazi / China News Service / VCG via Getty Images)

A permanent lunar base would allow scientists to study the moon’s resources over long periods of time and decide how to use them.

“I think the biggest hurdle is getting it back to Earth,” Usowski said. “It takes a huge amount of fuel to bring anything back to Earth that is actually worth putting into real applications.”

Some remote sensing has shown that high concentrations of rare earth elements exist in locations that have not yet been surveyed or directly sampled.

“I would expect them to be found together in similar proportions or in similar mixtures. [as on Earth]. That doesn’t necessarily make it easier. But again, those are all unknowns at this point,” Hughes said.

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Lunar soil samples collected by China’s lunar probe Chang’e-5 will be exhibited at the University of Hong Kong (August 7, 2023). (Hou Yu / China News Service / VCG via Getty Images)

China and the United States are also considering mining asteroids. Psyche is probably the most mineral-rich asteroid ever studied. It is estimated to contain $10 quintillion worth of metal. A US-funded spacecraft is currently on its way to Psyche. It is expected to begin orbiting the asteroid in late July 2029.

Mining on asteroids could prove dangerous. Some scientists have warned that drilling could change the trajectory and potentially cause a collision.

“It’s just the environment, right? In extreme temperatures, in situations where there’s nothing else, you can do that extraction and make it cost-effective, even if you have robotic-like capabilities, right? “Yes?” Hughes said.

NASA, the European Space Agency, and Japan all have plans to explore Mars. Samples from the Red Planet and its moons could reach Earth as early as 2033.

“Whether it’s using helium-3 or rare earth elements, I don’t know if we fully understand the cost-effectiveness of it, and I don’t think we fully understand that yet. ” Hughes said. “It’s definitely a competition.”

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