Undated : generic full moon
Undated : generic full moon

Why the race to own the Moon is heating up

CHINA and the US are desperate to stake their claims as entrepreneurs battle it out to be the first to exploit the Moon's enormously rich potential. But is it within reach?

But lofty dreams of colonising the Moon simply remain out of practical reach says internationally-renowned pioneer of space archaeology Dr Alice Gorman.

China's already built a mock-up of the habitat it hopes to put on the Moon south pole by the late 2020s. India's rover mission, intended to find precious isotopes, is on the launch-pad.

US President Donald Trump has just promised a breakneck speed effort to put an astronaut back on its surface.

Dr Alice Gorman, from Flinders University, says expectations and ambitions need to be managed. Picture: Calum Robertson
Dr Alice Gorman, from Flinders University, says expectations and ambitions need to be managed. Picture: Calum Robertson

"You read all these stories about plans and proposals," the Flinders University researcher says. "But there's a whole lot of essential technology that's simply not been developed yet."

Dr Gorman says expectations and ambitions need to be managed: "Yes: we must put a woman on the Moon. But we must also recognise that's just one more small step towards the ultimate goal of a fully viable settlement. And only by putting boots back on the Moon's surface will we get to discover - and solve - the challenges that lie ahead."

Self-sustaining biospheres. Portable energy sources. Seals that don't corrode when exposed to Moondust.

"There's just huge amounts of stuff that people don't know about: Women's bodies in space, for example. There's a massive data gap. The vast majority of astronauts have been men."

And that's going to be a severe problem when it comes to establishing settlements, or even long-term work-camps.

It's not that mining the Moon for its water ice, rare elements and helium-3 isn't worthwhile.

Breaking the water into hydrogen and oxygen would provide both air and fuel for deep space missions. Helium-3 promises to be a waste-free source of nuclear energy. And rare minerals are in great demand.

How do we do this? Where does the power to refine it all come from? Will we ever have the technology to tap the potential of helium-3?

We don't yet know, the author of Dr Space Junk versus the Universe says.

But the allure of exploiting such riches is proving powerful: "The space race has never been about a human urge to explore. It's all about commodities".

The first 'age' of human space exploration was based on the commodity of national prestige.

"The Apollo project was just so expensive," she says. "It was 2.5 per cent of US national GDP. But they had a reason. And that was to beat the Russians."

Dr Alice Gorman says only by putting boots back on the Moon’s surface will we get to solve the challenges that lie ahead.
Dr Alice Gorman says only by putting boots back on the Moon’s surface will we get to solve the challenges that lie ahead.

With that achieved, public enthusiasm rapidly waned. Soon Apollo was abandoned due to what was essentially a lack of interest. And expense.

Then came a second space 'age'. It was an era driven by information and services.

"You know, it was all about satellites for telecommunications, navigation, weather, all that stuff," she says.

Now, we're in the third space age. Dr Gorman says she fears it is becoming one dominated by commercial ambition.

"So I think that this is basically what's driving all of this new 'race to the Moon' business," she says. "It's about securing and exploiting resources."

And, like the first industrial revolution, Dr Gorman fears nations and corporations appear to be rushing headlong with little regard for human factors.

Or law.

The Outer Space Treaty and the Moon Agreement of the 1960s and 70s define the assets and territories as being there for the good of all humanity. But, now, this noble cause is facing calls for review, and being challenged as an impediment to progress.

"I think, at the moment, it's all happening too fast, there's still a lot of questions that need answers," Dr Gorman says.



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