As the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landings this summer, many people – including investors – looked to the night skies and wondered when we will return to our natural satellite.
Space exploration is becoming increasingly privatised, with companies like SpaceX ploughing vast resources into researching the next generation of reusable space vehicles since NASA retired its space shuttle fleet.
Part of the motivation behind private space exploration is of course the possibility to profit from resources found out in space, where ownership rights may be easier to obtain and activities, while clearly challenging, are as yet not tightly regulated.
So any report of a potentially valuable commodity found on the moon always makes headlines – and this summer was no exception.
Water on the moon
Water on the moon is a significant discovery, although not because of the reasons you might expect.
The earliest detection of water on the moon may have been during the Apollo missions themselves, when trace amounts of water were detected in the samples of moon rock brought back by astronauts.
However, because the containers used to transport the samples were not completely watertight, it was decided that the water may have got into the samples after their return to Earth.
In 2009 NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter made measurements that showed the presence of about 32 ounces of water per ton of the lunar surface.
And as recently as 2018, NASA went on to confirm the presence of frozen water within the top few millimetres of the moon’s surface around its poles.
This all matters not as you might expect, to provide drinking water for a human colony on the moon, but because it could be possible to extract the hydrogen and oxygen for use in rocket fuel, making the moon a waypoint for longer journeys across the solar system.
But the summer of 2019 brought an even more exciting discovery for would-be space investors – and a more traditional commodity for them to potentially mine on the moon.
Metal on the moon?
In June, researchers from Baylor University reported their discovery of a “mass anomaly” beneath the largest crater on the moon, close to its south pole.
The oval-shaped South Pole-Aitken Basin reaches around 2,000 km wide and several miles deep, but cannot be seen with the naked eye as it is on the ‘dark side’ of the moon, which continually faces away from Earth.
By analysing minor variations in the strength of the moon’s gravity, researchers were able to create a map of the moon’s mass – and what they found at the South Pole-Aitken Basin came as a surprise.
The measurements showed an unexpected mass buried hundreds of miles deep and pulling the basin itself down by as much as half a mile.
Lead author on the research paper Dr Peter B James explained: “Imagine taking a pile of metal five times larger than the Big Island of Hawaii and burying it underground. That’s roughly how much unexpected mass we detected.”
The theory is that the large asteroid that created the crater when it collided with the moon may have slammed its iron-nickel core into the lunar surface, leaving vast metal deposits embedded throughout the moon’s upper mantle in that area.
The Holy GRAIL
The data used for the research came, appropriately enough, from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission and could be seen as something of a Holy Grail by would-be lunar investors too.
While it would of course be difficult to mine metal from hundreds of miles below the moon’s surface, and out of sight of Earth, the potential for investors is clear too.
The moon offers several advantages – it’s relatively close, we’ve been there before and it’s locked in a stable orbit – that remove the biggest challenges of mining comets or asteroids as they hurtle through space past Earth.
With a seemingly vast deposit of metal to extract, mining operations could be established on a long-term basis, with permanent or semi-permanent residences constructed on the moon’s surface.
Significantly, following on from the discovery of water ice near the poles as well, the findings are an indication that the moon and other bodies in our solar system still have secrets to discover that could yield unfathomable return on investment for the private companies that win this 21st century space race.
Disclaimer: The information provided here is not investment, tax or financial advice. You should consult with a licensed professional for advice concerning your specific situation.