When DFD interviewed the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis for The Future In Five Questions recently, he had a surprising answer to our first question: That establishing a permanent lunar colony was an underrated policy idea, given the raw materials available there for humanity’s benefit.
As it turns out, that’s not as far-fetched an idea as you might think — and in fact the race to discover and mine oxygen, water, and rare earth materials, among other things, is already on, as Hannah Northey reported for our sister site E&E News yesterday. With that in mind, we’re bringing you an excerpt of her story, about the very real scientific and geopolitical jockeying behind a seemingly sci-fi idea. Read below:
Mining the moon isn’t just fodder for the movies.
Scientists at NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey are using their earthly expertise to identify and catalog resources on the celestial body to look for valuable materials — including minerals and crushed rock that can be used to make dwellings and equipment, or ice that can be turned into drinking water and even rocket fuel.
It’s not for use here on Earth, but part of a larger effort to return humans to the moon for the first time in more than half a century, establish a long-term presence and eventually support travel to Mars. NASA plans to send astronauts back to the moon as soon as 2025. Over the long haul, the space agency is working to extract and process oxygen, water, titanium, iron, aluminum, magnesium and rare earth elements.
“It’s not science fiction, there are resources out there,” said Laszlo Kestay, a planetary volcanologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Yet the government’s moon ambitions face myriad challenges, from budgetary constraints to technological hurdles. Just as crucially, the geopolitics of tapping space resources remain murky — a situation that pits Washington and its allies against Beijing and Moscow.
The U.S. joined the Artemis Accords in 2020, with seven founding members that have now grown to 31 in 2020, agreeing to become part of NASA’s lunar program and signing off on a nonbinding set of principles grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Those principles touch on everything from preserving historic sites in space to avoiding conflict, ensuring transparency, and requiring the extraction and use of any lunar resources to comply with the treaty. China, Russia and other countries are pursuing a competing project, the International Lunar Research Station.
“You’ve got these two [sets of countries] sort of playing by different rules, and so it’s been polarized, although China has not completely been in disagreement with Artemis,” said Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Colorado School of Mines’ Space Resources Program. “They are not part of the club because they want to keep it separate, so tensions are rising in this geopolitical scene.”
Highlighting that point, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson warned during an interview with POLITICO in January that Beijing could establish a foothold on the moon, especially in resource-rich areas like the moon’s south pole, and possibly constrict U.S. access. The former astronaut and Florida senator said the U.S. is locked in a “space race,” pointing to China’s ambitious plans of landing humans on the moon by the end of the decade.
Analysts warn the race to secure resources — solar power, oxygen and metals — could spark strife given the accords don’t spell out national boundaries on the moon. “The battle for territory on the moon could resemble conflicts in the South China Sea and in Ukraine as foreign powers skirmish with each other for additional land and resources,” Matthew Gross, an editor for the Harvard International Review, wrote in a January blog post.
Critics say the prospects for moon mining may be overhyped, and the legal, technological and financial landscape around valuing the moon’s resources is still in its infancy. Henry Hertzfeld, an expert on space law and space economics at George Washington University, said it’s inaccurate to talk about “mining” the moon and that what’s happening is better characterized as research and development. He also said researchers, private companies and academics have a long way to go to prove the moon holds economically valuable resources.
“Technologically we may be able to do it, but will it really be viable from a business perspective or even from a government cost perspective?” said Hertzfeld. “Those are the questions we can’t answer.”
Read the rest of Hannah’s story here at E&E News Greenwire.
With the United Kingdom’s AI Safety Summit winding down, our reporters on the other side of the pond have compiled some key takeaways from the first of its two days.
POLITICO’s Eugene Daniels accompanied Vice President Kamala Harris to the summit and said her speech made a pitch for the U.S. to lead on AI.
“It seems like the way the United States wanted to make clear was, yes, they’re allies with the U.K. on this, but they want the United States approach to this to be the one that the global community actually adheres to,” he said on today’s POLITICO Tech podcast.
And POLITICO’s Tom Bristow recapped the key takeaways from day one for Pro subscribers, including:
- The key differences on what qualifies as AI “risk” between various countries;
- Lawmakers’ common eagerness to use existing regulatory tools to control AI;
- The desire for more inclusion of countries from the “global south”;
- “Detailed policy proposals” were made regarding the planned AI Safety Institute;
- Scientists are looking for new safety frameworks including “non-removable off switches.”
The chair of the panel where the last bullet point was discussed, the U.K.’s Government Chief Scientific Adviser Dame Angela McLean, said only a “tiny number” of people were involved in discussing risk, and that she hoped that would change. — Derek Robertson
The House of Representatives will introduce a bill to reauthorize the National Quantum Initiative tomorrow, as POLITICO’s Mallory Culhane first reported yesterday.
The original NQIA, passed into law in 2018, funded quantum research and created a handful of federal bureaucracies to foster its development. The proposed reauthorization is much the same but with a few new twists including a new quantum agency at NASA, a National Science Foundation hub to develop a quantum workforce, and a directive to President Joe Biden to coordinate with U.S. allies to develop and maintain a competitive advantage in quantum over countries like China and Russia.
That’s all very much in line with the recommendations the Center For Data Innovation’s Hodan Omaar made in a recent report covered here in DFD, so I reached out to ask for her thoughts, and she was predictably sanguine:
“Given the chaotic week we’re having in AI policy, the quantum reauthorization bill is a valuable reminder of how the United States can proactively support technology leadership and competitiveness,” she wrote, nodding to its language that would boost government support for commercial quantum applications. “The House has done its part, but it is important that the Senate prioritizes swiftly passing and enacting the NQIA reauthorization bill.” — Derek Robertson
Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Mohar Chatterjee ([email protected]); Steve Heuser ([email protected]); Nate Robson ([email protected]) and Daniella Cheslow ([email protected]).