As China, the U.S. and other countries work to expand mining and production of rare earth elements, the race to mine in space is growing more competitive.
“We see China keeping their foot on the accelerator,” said Michael Usowski, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s senior defense intelligence analyst for the Office of Space and Counterspace. “They want to be that country that sets the norms in space.”
U.S. scientists have been studying the moon for decades and stayed ahead of the competition when it came to examining the moon’s surface. The U.S. is the only country to place humans on the moon for exploration. During the Apollo 11 mission, a control operator warned astronauts to “watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit.” He may have foreshadowed China’s space ambitions when mentioning Chang’e. It’s the name of a Chinese folktale about a moon goddess who flies to the lunar surface with her rabbit. It is also the name of China’s lunar exploration program.
China performed its first successful soft landing on the moon in 2013 and launched its lunar rover, the Jade Rabbit. It was the first landing in nearly 37 years. Despite the U.S. dominance early on, NASA has not performed a soft landing since 1972, the final Apollo mission.
“It’s another reason why we should never leave certain territories, whether it’s a poor country in Africa or the moon,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. “When we abandon areas, we leave them available to bad actors like China. China steps in wherever they can [and] play by a different set of rules, if any rules at all.”
China has launched five Chang’e missions. Its fourth was the first to land on the far side of the moon. The most recent mission in 2020 returned with lunar samples. Next year, it plans to combine the two previous missions and become the first country to bring back samples from the far side. Despite the advancements, Defense Intelligence officials say China likely does not have any more information about the moon’s makeup than what the U.S. has already studied.
“A lot of the unmanned things that we’ve flown in the past certainly have found water at all at the poles of the moon, at the south pole of the moon specifically,” said John Huth, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s chief of the Office of Space and Counterspace. “It’s been some time, but certainly even with unmanned activities. I wouldn’t say they know anything more than we do.”
Between 1969 and 1972, the Apollo missions brought back more than 800 pounds of lunar samples. Those contained trace amounts of rare earth elements. Scientists who study those samples and imaging from probes believe those minerals are likely to be even more rare on the moon. However, experts acknowledge a physical presence is needed to know the true geological makeup.
“One of the things we’ll do first when we establish a lunar base, whether it’s us or the Chinese, is really assess what’s there,” Huth said. “We’ve done that remote sensing part. We’ve brought materials back from the moon, as have the Chinese. So, one of the first things is trying to build a self-sustainable lunar base. And then understand better really what those minerals, what those other things are that are available that either could be used on the moon or brought back in some way to the Earth to be used more effectively.”
With a permanent lunar base in place, scientists could study the resources on the moon over a long period of time and determine how to use those.
“I would say the biggest hurdle is bringing it back to Earth,” Usowski said. “It takes a tremendous amount of fuel to bring back something that’s worth actually putting towards a true application back here on the Earth.”
Some remote sensing has indicated high concentrations of rare earth elements in locations not yet explored or sampled directly.
“I would expect they would be found together in similar proportions or similar admixtures [as on Earth]. That would not necessarily make it easier. But again, those are all unknowns right now,” Huth said.
China and the U.S. are also exploring mining on asteroids. Psyche is possibly the most mineral-rich asteroid of those studied. It’s estimated to contain $10 quintillion worth of metals. A U.S.-funded spacecraft is en route to Psyche now. It’s expected to begin orbiting the asteroid in late July 2029.
Mining on asteroids could prove dangerous. Some scientists warn that drilling could alter trajectories and cause possible collisions.
“It’s just the environment, right? The extreme temperatures, the absence of other things, even with the robotic type of capabilities, would it be feasible to do that extraction and make it cost-effective?” Huth said.
NASA, the European Space Agency and Japan all have plans to explore Mars. Samples from the Red Planet and its moons could arrive back on Earth as soon as 2033.
“I don’t know that we fully appreciate the bang for the buck, whether that be with helium-3, whether that be with rare earth elements. And I don’t think we have a really good handle on that just yet,” Huth said. “It’s certainly a competition.”