This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.
By Heather Exner-Pirot & Daniel Sax, February 23, 2023
The splashdown of NASA’s Orion spacecraft last month in the Pacific Ocean may have ended the successful Artemis I mission, but humankind’s return to the moon is just getting started, and with it a fantastic opportunity for Canada.
There is enthusiasm – and funding – for more space exploration. A $100-billion-plus lunar economy beckons, and one of the most anticipated components of that economy is space mining.
Is this some pie-in-the-sky fantasy? No more so than establishing a base camp on the moon, which is what NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and other partners are preparing for as part of the Artemis program by the 2030s. China and Russia announced jointly in 2021 that they are planning the same.
Once those bases get established, they will require air to breathe and fuel to sustain operations. Producing oxygen and hydrogen from the moon’s ice and dust is more feasible than lugging them back and forth from Earth – in fact, it’s the only way. So space mining will be necessary, and we have about a decade to figure out how to do it. That’s less time than it takes to develop and build the average mine here in Canada.
Amid this urgency, Canada has a competitive edge because we know how to mine in isolated locations, and we have experience operating in space. Solutions for mining in deep, remote and extreme environments are as applicable on the moon as they are in the High Arctic. And any lessons learned would be complementary, as innovations developed for space mining could also be used to help identify and harvest resources on Earth in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner.
The federal government recognizes the opportunity. The Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan specifically calls for the development of a space policy to foster investment and development, as the United States did with its Space Act back in 2015. And the Canadian Space Agency is already funding the development of concepts for space mining.
But mining on the moon could also lend itself to a space supply chain. One of Canada’s contributions to the next phase of space exploration will be to build the Canadarm3 for NASA’s planned Gateway program. This small space station to be placed in lunar orbit could act, in part, as a kind of gas station. Getting out of the Earth’s atmosphere is energy-intensive; before spacecraft go out to Mars or deep space, a fuel-up would be enormously helpful. That fuel would have to be sourced from mining operations on the moon.
The other scientific breakthrough announced last month was a nuclear fusion reaction in a California lab, which generated more energy than it used. Whereas current nuclear technology uses fission, which splits heavy atoms like uranium, fusion does the opposite and joins lighter atoms. Helium-3 is a light and stable isotope of helium that has two protons but, unlike the far more common Helium-4 that we use in birthday balloons, just one neutron. Using Helium-3 in fusion can produce copious clean energy with no radioactivity.
What does nuclear fusion have to do with lunar mining? The moon is a good source of Helium-3, whereas the earth has almost none. Knowing this, China brought back a sample of it from their 2020 lunar mission, Chang’e 5. In 2024 they plan to go back for more.
Because you would need so little Helium-3 to produce so much energy with fusion – theoretically, 200 tonnes could provide a year’s worth of global energy needs – there’s a compelling business case for mining it on the moon and bringing it back to use on Earth. Each tonne would be worth billions of dollars.
Space mining is indeed the stuff of science non-fiction. It is strategic and necessary, and whoever figures out how to do it first will be rewarded. With the proper supports and policies, that could be Canada, and Canadian companies. It is ours to win, a generational opportunity for Canada and its citizens that would benefit life all around our planet.
Many of us spent 2022 lamenting that, as a nation, we are too often behind the eight-ball on LNG, critical minerals and more. Let’s not let another resource opportunity slip through our fingers.
Space mining is real, and it will favour first movers. Canada has an advantage in this market; let’s make sure we treat it with ambition rather than incredulity.
Heather Exner-Pirot is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Daniel Sax is CEO at Canadian Space Mining Corp.